This wasn’t the original post I planned for this week, but I thought I would write about something that is going on in my life. I’m sure you all, as my readers, won’t mind if I get down to a more personal level.
I just found out that my little sister is going to be home-schooled next year because of a problem with bullying. Granted, she and I fight a lot, but I’m sure most of you understand that that doesn’t change the fact that she’s my sister. The fact that this problem is getting so bad really hurts me. I completely understand what she’s going through. I’m in college now, but I’ve been there. I was also bullied in high school. But luckily, my bully was afraid of getting suspended so when I ratted her out, she stopped. My sister isn’t so lucky. Her best friend turned against her, and when somebody has been your best friend for 10 years, there’s a lot they can use against you. My sister is not how some might define a victim of bullying. She is plenty strong, very beautiful, confident, and happy. I’m not being subjective when I say: my sister’s best friend just let her jealousy get the best of her, therefore turning into her bully. It just kills me that there’s nothing I can do to help out my sister any more than I have already just by being there for her when she’s hurting.
Anyway! I hope you guys aren’t bothered by that little rant. But, I’m done now!
When I went through my Twitter feed, I saw somebody linked to an article about “The Positive Psychology of Empathy- What is the opposite of bullying?”. I don’t know if you ever feel like the universe is speaking to you, but I sure as hell took that tweet as a reason to write about that article for my post today.
In one of my last posts, I touched very briefly on empathy. Basically, it’s when you put yourself in another person’s shoes in an effort to understand how they think or feel. In this article, Patty O’Grady, Ph.D. explains the science of empathy and how it works in the brain. Mirror neurons are basically monkey-see, monkey-do triggers in the brain. This is what is responsible for a child’s ability to mimic their caregivers before they even understand what they are doing. I’m sure if you have raised a child you know what I’m talking about. When you sit at the table and rest your elbow on the table with your chin resting in your hand and realize your child is doing the same. When you sigh after eating a big meal and hear your child doing the same. That sort of thing. It also enables us as humans, for the most part, to adapt to situations around us, even if we are unfamiliar with our surroundings. For example, when I attended my first funeral, I could just sense that it probably isn’t a good idea to talk loudly and move abruptly, like running or jumping out of my seat, just based on my observations of the people around me.
Mirror neurons also enable us to feel what those around us are feeling, meaning, we can be empathetic. This is easily seen in children in arguably one of the most annoying situations: in a room full of children, when one starts crying, others are bound to start crying. It’s not because each of them suddenly have something wrong with them, it’s because the mirror neurons in their brain provoke an emotional response. They feel the pain that first crying child felt that made them so upset.
Dr. O’Grady stresses the effects of empathy in children, more specifically, in students. I’m not sure if all of the information she is presenting is applicable to adults as well as it is to children. I agree, however, that because children are so susceptible to an immediate emotional response to another’s pain, and not a logical response, that we should take advantage of that and teach children how to use this in a productive manner. Empathy is innate and very, very natural to us when we are young. But as we get older, we think more before we act and use logic and reasoning before making decisions. Children have not developed the necessary brain elements to think with the same logic and reasoning we do. Usually, their responses are triggered by emotions. They react based on what and how they feel. As Dr. O’Grady says,
“The emotional strengths of kindness, generosity, forgiveness, and compassion are learned by feeling them — and not simply by thinking about them. Empathy is compassionate caring that can be nurtured. Teach affection to activate cognition.”
Bullying is such a terrible problem that nobody can find a solution for, but I think Dr. O’Grady is on to something here. We need to start teaching children to continue to feel as well as think. Yes, developing the thinking skills to learn math and science and english and history and so on is very important, but if we put empathy on that list of subjects, maybe we can reinforce feeling as well as thinking. If we teach children at a young age to walk in another person’s shoes more often, we can reinforce the empathetic response. That way, in the future, they may be less likely to bully somebody.