One Surefire Way to Reduce Bullying

Fight bullying by teaching empathy.

Posted Jun 07, 2016

Marion Denchars, used with permission
Source: Marion Denchars, used with permission

As much as we would like to think otherwise, we live in a self-absorbed world. And shockingly children, perhaps because of prevailing “all-about-me” attitudes, are 40 percent less empathetic than they were thirty years ago. 

“Selfies” dominate our culture, and the stress caused by the drive to succeed undermines the development of empathy—the habit that actually gives children an edge or what Michele Borba, Ed. D. calls the “Empathy Advantage.”

In her new book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, she explains that empathy is the key to children’s happiness, well-being and success—right now and later as grownups. Empathy can be learned and Dr. Borba explains exactly how parents—and educators—can and should be the teachers. 

She calls the widespread self-absorption the “Selfie Syndrome.” She describes the syndrome as “self-promotion, personal branding and self-interest at the exclusion of others’ feelings, others’ needs, and others’ concerns. It’s permeating our culture and slowly eroding our children’s character.” Or, put another way, “self-absorption kills empathy.”

When research tells us that “two-thirds of adolescents ranked their own personal happiness as more important than their goodness” and “93 percent of adults feel we are failing to instill values in our children,” it is clear that children need a moral identity that will shore up their empathy.

Throughout UnSelfie, Borba explains why parents should be worried and what they can and must do. She focuses on the habits children need, all of which parents can instill in their children and all essential to the challenges your children will face.

Learning to Put Yourself in Another’s Shoes

Used with permission of the publisher
Source: Used with permission of the publisher

One of the most evident signs of the erosion of children’s character is the severity of and increase in bullying at younger and younger ages. It underscores a lack of empathy.

The effort to curb bullying rests in part in being able to put yourself in another’s shoes. That requires perspective taking which Dr. Borba describes as “the ability to understand another person’s thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs. I like to call this essential habit the ‘gateway to empathy.’” It is one of nine key habits explored in UnSelfie.

Whether you have a toddler or teen, you can teach a child to see things from another’s perspective, i.e., to C.A.R.E. Borba suggests:

C. = Call Attention to Uncaring Acts

Name what your child did that was wrong and explain why it was uncaring. Skip heavy-handed lectures or punishment.

A. = Assess How Uncaring Affects Others

Point out how your child’s action affects another person. Ask your child how she would feel if the same thing happened to her…if she were in the other person’s shoes.

R. = Repair the Hurt and Require Reparations

Help your child understand how he made someone feel and ask how he will “repair the hurt.”

E. = Express Your Disappointment and Stress Caring Expectations

When you explain how a child’s behavior, not the child, disappoints you, you accomplish two goals: You tell a child he can do better and help him develop empathy for others. For example, “I don’t like hearing you talk behind your friend’s back. You’re a good person, and I expect you to consider other people’s feelings.”

In our digitally driven era, learning to put yourself in another person’s shoes is a good starting point for reducing bullying. Borba says, “if a child can imagine himself as a caring person, he is more likely to care.”

Tools to Build Empathy

Used with permission of the publisher
Source: Used with permission of the publisher

Bob the Artist, a book by Marion Denchars for ages 3 and up, tells the story of a young bird just like everyone else except for his skinny legs that everyone in his animal world make fun of. He finds refuge from teasing and bullying by painting his beak in colorful ways. You might ask your child how he would feel if he looked different. How did Bob feel when teased by Cat and Owl? (Recommended by the PACER National Bullying Prevention Center.

Borba feels strongly that learning to walk in another’s shoes is “a habit that children need for every part of life—from handling playground disputes today to mastering boardroom debates tomorrow.” Her book provides wonderful age-by-age techniques for helping children understand misfortunes, disabilities, and differences that are often at the heart of bullying. Her strategies to turn kids into kinder human beings include many books, movies, and outings. By way of example for school age readers, the book Ramona the Pest encourages children to be empathetic to Ramona Quimby’s plight as does The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka for younger children. For older children and teens, she recommends the movies Dances with Wolves, Watership Down, and Paying It Forward, among others.

Whether you read a book, share a movie, or take your child to a nursing home or homeless shelter, ask questions to encourage thinking about how the people or character might be feeling. You can also ask, "How would you feel?" Or, "What would you do differently?"

Starting at very young ages, parents and teachers can shore up children’s empathy with little effort. By doing so, I think we will see bullying reduced and your child’s empathy and hence his or her “empathy advantage” begin to take hold.


Understanding and Mastering the Empathy Gap 


Borba, Michele. UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. New York: Touchstone, 2016.

Deuchars, Marion. Bob the Artist. San Fransisco: Laurence King Publishing/Chronical Books, 2016.

Copyright @2016 by Susan Newman