09 November 2010


Bullying, which encompasses emotional, verbal and physical abuse of a weaker person, has been receiving increased attention around the country. It has always been with us (I was a target in my youth), and it isn't clear whether bullying incidents are becoming more frequent, or simply more frequently reported. Whichever is the case, parents, schools, and the US Department of Education have become involved in trying to understand and prevent acts of meanness. To date, most efforts have been focused on identifying and punishing bullies. The map above identifies states which have passed laws against bullying behavior (shades of blue indicate more protection, shades of yellow and red indicate less protection). Click on the map to enlarge the image.

In today's NYTimes online, David Bornstein reports on another, gentler approach. His article Fighting Bullies With Babies notes that just as humans appear to be hardwired for aggression and selfishness, we are also genetically predisposed toward compassion. A Canadian educator named Mary Gordon decided to explore this avenue further in 1996 by founding a network of school-based parenting and family literacy centers called Roots of Empathy. Realizing that many abusive parents had not themselves developed empathy for their children, Gordon envisioned am education program that would include not only adults, but school children of all ages -- preemptively addressing future generations of parents.

Enter the babies (accompanied by a parent). During the course of a school year, children are introduced to individual infants on successive visits, and are guided by trained instructors to try to understand the baby's feelings. The result -- children become more empathic, understanding, and kinder to each other. They learn how to comfort a crying baby, they discover that everyone comes into the world with a different temperament (including themselves and their classmates), and they marvel at how individual babies grow and develop over time.

The program has been so successful that it had been adopted in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and the United States (in Washington state). Bornstein reports after visits to training classrooms, "What I find most fascinating is how the baby actually changes the children's behavior .... tough kids smile, disruptive kids focus, shy kids open up. In a seventh grade class, I found 12-year olds unabashedly singing nursery rhymes."

This example of lateral thinking, elegant in its simplicity, is the sort of problem-solving that I admire most. Gordon stepped outside the box of habitual infraction-and-punishment behavior, and in a moment of insight revealed to the rest of us a new approach not only to individual bullying, but also (perhaps) to extending empathy to all sorts of relationships -- between adults, between races, between nations.

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