Fight Bullying with Babies

Empathy can't be taught, but can be caught--from babies.

Posted Nov 24, 2010

We humans are endowed by natural selection (or by God, if you prefer) with contradictory drives and emotions. We are wired to be selfish, mean, and violent; and we are also wired to be generous, compassionate, and loving. The human drama--that runs through all religions, through all major accounts of history, and through the greatest and truest works of fiction--revolves around this duplex nature of ours. The devil and the angel are wrapped in a single skin. Our salvation depends always on our ability to feed the angel and starve the devil. This is no easy task. There are no sure routes to success. But our greatest assistants in this task may be babies and young children. That is the thesis of this essay.

Look closely at a baby. See its helplessness; feel its pain and joy; experience its faith that someone will care and provide. Look at a toddler, acting so bravely, walking and running, experimenting with language, sometimes deliberately being naughty, asserting its independence, and then crying out for Mommy when suddenly frightened. Do this repeatedly and the compassionate angel in you grows while the mean-spirited devil shrivels. Our species could not have survived more than a generation were it not for our powerful instinct to care and feel compassion for babies and young children. And that instinct is transferrable. We can apply it not just to babies and young children, but also to older children, to teenagers, to adults, and--as religious leaders have repeatedly shown--even to those who would be our persecutors and enemies.

A wise woman (my mother) once said to me: "If you want to feel compassion for someone who is really annoying you, imagine that that person is two years old." It works. We are all, in reality, not much different from two-year-olds. We are all, in our own clumsy ways, asserting ourselves in the world, expressing our joys and fears, and calling out for help that we desperately need. It's not hard to look at any human being, even the meanest one, and see the two-year-old.

My essay today was inspired by an article entitled Fighting Bullying with Babies, by David Bornstein, posted recently on the New York Times Opinionator blog. (I stole Bornstein's title for this essay, which is why I put quotation marks around it.) Bornstein's article is about the Roots of Empathy program, founded more than a decade ago by Mary Gordon in Toronto. Here I'll say a bit about Gordon's program and then describe some other examples that demonstrate the power of babies and young children to bring out the angel in us and squash the devil.

The Roots of Empathy Program

Mary Gordon founded Roots of Empathy after years of working with abusive parents and abused children. She saw the cycle. Children growing up unloved and surrounded by violence became unloving and violent parents. The idea behind her new program was to bring real babies and their moms (and sometimes dads) into school classrooms so that children from all backgrounds could gain experience looking at babies, talking about babies, and thinking about what it is like to be a baby. The idea was that this would help set children on the road to becoming, ultimately, better parents.

She found, through experience, that her program also had a remarkable, more immediate effect on the classrooms that participated. The children who had this experience--of a monthly visit from a baby and parent--became kinder and more compassionate with one another. Bullying declined. Kids who were previously teased and taunted for being different were now in many cases admired for their differences. Apparently, the exposure to the infant, and the discussions of the thoughts and feelings that the infant evoked, served as a powerful force for the spread of compassion throughout the classroom--an effect that would last the whole month, from one baby visit to the next.

Here's a sample story from Gordon's book about her program.[1] In one eighth-grade class the toughest and meanest looking kid was Darren. He was two years older than the others because he had been held back, was already growing a beard, had a tattoo on the back of his partially shaved head, and was intimidating to all around him. Darren's mother had been murdered in front of his eyes when he was four years old, and he had lived in a series of foster homes. So, he had to look and act tough. But the 6-month-old baby who had been brought to the classroom melted him.

The mom had brought along a Snuggly, trimmed with pink brocade, which she used for holding the baby close to her. Near the end of the class visit--after the class had spent 40 minutes observing and talking about the baby--the mother asked if anyone would like to try on the Snuggly. To everyone's dismay, Darren raised his hand. With the Snuggly strapped on, he then asked the mom if she would put the baby into it. With, I imagine, much apprehension, the mother did just that. Darren then sat quietly for several minutes in the corner rocking, while the baby snuggled contentedly into his arms and chest. When it was time for the baby and mother to leave, Darren asked the mother and the instructor: "If a person has never been loved, can he still be a good father?"

The Roots of Empathy program has now spread throughout Canada and made inroads into a number of other countries. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, has conducted controlled studies, not yet published, which purport to show that the program greatly reduces aggression and increases kindness not just on the day of the baby's visit, but throughout the school year.[2] In an essay I posted six months ago I claimed that no anti-bullying program tried in standard schools to date had been proven to be effective over the long run (see post of May 12, 2010). Schonert-Reichl's studies, when published, may lead me to revise that conclusion. Mary Gordon likes to say, "Empathy can't be taught, but it can be caught. You catch it from babies."

Pastor Daniel Dean and the HOPE Community Center and School in Tampa

I met Daniel Dean two months ago at a symposium on the value of free play that I helped to organize in Binghamton, New York. He was brought to the symposium by my friend Jerry Lieberman, who is president of the Florida Humanist Society. Jerry wanted my academic colleagues and me to meet Daniel and learn from him, and Daniel himself came with the hope of learning something from us. I don't know if Daniel learned anything worth knowing from us, but I certainly learned an enormous amount from him, and I intend to keep learning from him.

Daniel Dean, who was born in Jamaica but grew up in Florida, is a Christian pastor and community leader. He and volunteers built--literally built, with shovels, saws, and hammers--a community center on North 22nd Street in Tampa, at a corner long known for drug dealing, prostitution, and violence. The mayor of Tampa had offered a vacant lot on this corner to anyone who would build something there that would help to improve the neighborhood, and Daniel took up the challenge. He and his wife Suzette, along with other volunteers, would build a center that would house a church on Sundays, a daycare and school on weekdays, and a community and recreation center, for people of all ages, on weekday evenings and at other times when school wasn't in session. Some people thought he was crazy. The place would be vandalized, destroyed before the roof went up. And if the roof did go up and children came, the children would be in constant danger from the "element" surrounding it. But Daniel thought differently, and so far he has been proven correct.

As Daniel worked at constructing the building, often with his two young sons working by his side, people from the neighborhood came over to ask about what he was doing and why. They were proud of his project, moved by his respectful relationship with his boys, and pleased to volunteer to help. Daniel also made a point of getting to know the people hanging around the bar across the street. They too were emotionally moved by the idea that a school for little children, as well as a community center for people of all ages, was being built right there, across the street from the bar. Daniel clearly trusted them, and trust breeds trustworthiness. Even before the center was completed, the fighting outside that bar stopped and the drug dealers and prostitutes started drifting away. Apparently, such activities were incompatible with the feelings evoked by the thought of a center for little children across the street.

The building was completed more than a year ago, and the school and community center are in full swing. The center is called HOPE (for Helping Our People Excel). The school now has 80 students, ranging from one-year-old infants up through high-school students. Most are from families that are close to or below the poverty line. In the evening, adults as well as children come to play checkers and chess, use the computers, take classes (such cooking), obtain help in finding employment, hold meetings, and socialize. They bring their babies and toddlers along, and the kids of all ages play in age-mixed groups.

According to Daniel, the violence and vandalism on the street have stopped and there has  been no violence or vandalism at all in the school. The people feel that this fine school and center are theirs, and they are proud of it, and nobody is going to destroy it. The sense of community ownership is a big part of the success, but I think that the more-or-less continuous presence of little children plays an equally big role. Daniel agrees.

According to Daniel Dean, every day at the school starts with an age-mixed recess. The kids play together and get to know everyone, of all ages. The older ones naturally develop big-brother, big-sister relationships with the little ones, and the sense of caring expands outward to encompass everyone in the school and, perhaps, beyond. I'm planning a trip to Tampa to visit this school, and I may tell you more after that. Meanwhile, for more about HOPE, see

Cross-Cultural Evidence for the Pacifying Power of Babies and Young Children

In a review of research on children's social interactions conducted in many different cultures, anthropologist Beatrice Whiting concluded that boys and girls everywhere demonstrate more kindness and compassion in interactions with children who are at least three years younger than themselves than they do toward children closer to their own age.[3] She suggested that natural interactions with younger children and babies are the vehicle through which children and teenagers exercise and develop their capacities to nurture others, and that these capacities, as they develop, may generalize to interactions with people of all ages.

Consistent with this theory, anthropologist Carol Ember reported long ago on a study that she conducted of boys, in the age range of 8 to 16, in a subsistence farming community in Kenya.[4] In this community, girls were expected to help their mothers care for younger children and infants at home, but in families where there were no girls of the appropriate age boys were required to do this task. Ember reported that boys who were regular babysitters at home (because they had no sisters to do it) were, on average, kinder, more helpful, and less aggressive in their interactions with their own peers than were boys who did not have such babysitting experience.

How Young Children Promote Kindness at the Sudbury Valley School

As regular readers of this blog know, my former student Jay Feldman and I have conducted research on age-mixed interactions at the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts. At this school, students from age four on through high-school age are free to explore and play as they wish, with whom they wish, all day long. In our research, we documented many ways by which children and adolescents at the school regularly practice their nurturing skills through their self-chosen interactions with younger children. They read to them, comfort them, correct them when they violate rules, teach them games, help them do things that they cannot do alone, help them find lost objects, and take pride in their accomplishments. They are, I think, on their own initiatives practicing to be parents; and, more generally, they are practicing the kinds of abilities that will make them caring and valuable helpers and leaders to everyone around them.


It is sad to see, in our age-graded society, that many if not most children and adolescents have few opportunities to get to know and to interact regularly with children who are much younger than themselves. If we want young people to grow up to be compassionate and caring, we need to allow them to exercise those capacities; and to do that we need to break down the barriers we have erected to keep young people of different ages apart. We are designed by nature to learn to be compassionate by observing and caring for littler ones while we ourselves are growing up.

[1] M. Gordon (2005). Roots of Empathly. Toronto: Thomas Allen Publishers.
[2] For a preliminary report of one of Schonert-Reichl's studies, Google Evaluating the Effectiveness of the Roots of Empathy Program: Isle of Man, 2009-10, and download the PDF.
[3] B. B. Whiting (1983). The genesis of prosocial behavior. In: D. L. Bridgeman (Ed.), The Nature of Prosocial Development: Interdisciplinary Theories and Strategies. New York: Academic Press.
[4] C. R. Ember (1973). Feminine task assignment and the social behavior of boys. Ethos, 1, 424-439.
[5] P. Gray & J. Feldman (2004). Playing in zone of proximal development: Qualities of self-directed age mixing between adolescents and young children at a democratic school. American Journal of Education, 110, 108-145.

More Posts