(it’s a skill we can all work on, especially now!)

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus Finch quote in To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.

An upstander is someone who recognizes when something is wrong and takes action. It’s a person who stands up for others and has the courage and empathy to make a difference.

We as a charity talk a lot about upstanders and how their actions can drastically help a bullied child.  Two traits are highlighted in the definition above: courage and empathy.  Empathy is the ability to understand and experience the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another person.  It involves being able to think in someone else’s shoes and share those same emotions.  Research tells us that empathy is not a fixed trait and it can be fostered.  Empathy is a set of skills that are cultivated over time and the more we practice, the better we are.

In her book, Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World,  Michele Borba shares, “Empathy can be instilled, and it is composed of teachable habits that can be developed, practiced, and lived. Empathy is what lays the foundation for helping children live one essential truth: We are all humans who share the same fears and concerns and deserve to be treated with dignity.”

Cultivating empathy in our children is incredibly valuable not only for becoming an upstander, but for living a life rich with relationships and experiencing other’s journeys with a genuine understanding.  Learning empathy as a child enables them to grow up and become caring, responsible adults who shift from a “me” mindset to an “us” mindset.

Here are some ideas to help our children, and possibly for ourselves to become more empathetic and caring, especially in this time of political unrest coupled with a world-wide pandemic.

  1. Learn to Listen: Learn to listen intently when people are speaking with you, especially during heated topics.  Recognize if you, as the listener, are forming your response before the other person has completed their thought.  (Hint: That is not intently listening). Becoming a good listener might mean to slow down, and to truly consider the speaker’s motivation behind his or her words.  Asking follow-up questions can aid in better understanding the speaker’s intention.  Being an active listener and repeating back key ideas of what you heard will also help that the message they are delivering is clear and understood.  You don’t have to agree with the speaker but listening intently opens the door for empathy.
  2. Model how to value feelings: This is an area I believe many adults need to work on.  Our behavior as parents is being watched by our children constantly.  Modeling empathy involves acknowledging and valuing other’s feelings (even if we don’t agree with them).  It involves showing understanding and sympathy when another is sad, upset, frustrated or in need of help.  Modeling empathetic behavior is a 24/7 endeavor and needs to be expressed at home, in public and also online.
  3. Teach children to identify their own feelings: Labeling and discussing feelings allows children to recognize emotions in others and connect with them.
  4. Respect and validate the feelings of our children: Identifying feelings is the first step and validating those feelings in your child is just as important. Some feelings can be troublesome for a parent to hear however by providing a safe space for a child to express their discomfort helps foster compassion and trust. The more that we as adults empathize with our children, the more they can learn to show empathy to others.
  5. Encourage different viewpoints: Here again, I think this is an area that many of us can work on. Children can begin to learn at a young age that the world is not always black and white, but rather multi-faceted.  It should be encouraged at times to seek differing opinions and discussions to see issues and opinions from different angles.
  6. Expose children to people and experiences different from theirs: Challenging our children and ourselves to actively pursue different experiences can require courage and often times takes us out of our comfort zones. Volunteering is a great way to fulfill this idea and ultimately foster empathy for others.

Educational psychologist Michele Borba recommends brainstorming empathetic ideas with you child, even if it is after the event.  These brainstorming sessions provide great teaching moments to learn how to validate and care for another person.  She also recommends offering examples when you did not offer empathy or were not an upstander for another person and discuss how you would handle to situation differently now.

In Caroline Bologna’s article “How to Raise an Upstander”, she encourages parents working with their children to see where they feel comfortable being an upstander.  There are many different ways to be an upstander and understanding your child’s temperament level will allow you as a parent to better understand, role-play and recommend ways to intervene on behalf of a target of bullying.  Some children will feel more comfortable befriending the target and offering comfort and support.  Other children will be better equipped to create a distraction that removes the focus from the bully, and some will be empowered to intervene during the bullying event and speak directly to the bully and tell him or her to stop.

Another key piece of advice Bologna suggests is to teach children to be the first.  Social science research tells us that when even one person is willing to speak up about something that is wrong, others will often follow.  If no one is willing to say something or confront the perpetrator, the bullying will very likely continue.  Being the first can entail stepping in and saying something directly to the bully.  Being first can also be the child who reports the event to a trusted adult or the first child to come to the aid of the target.

Becoming an upstander is a learned behavior.  Discussing and validating feelings, learning to listen more intently, modeling compassionate behavior and stepping outside of our viewpoint and comfort zones allows us to foster empathy and raise children who are empathetic, compassionate and upstanders.