Bullies, Babies, And The Birth Of Empathy

From Lorraine Segal’s Conflict Remedy Blog

Can babies prevent bullying? The answer may be a resounding “yes.”

Bullying has been in the news a lot lately. In my last blog posting, I wrote about recent information from neuroscience about the violent changes in the brain from being bullied, and ended on a more hopeful note with suggestions for positive actions to prevent, intervene, or heal from bullying.

One delightful and effective approach to preventing bullying comes from a Canadian program called Roots of Empathy. An educator named Mary Gordon had a brilliant intuition that bringing babies and their mothers into classrooms would help children activate their empathy.

Her organization, Roots of Empathy, developed two programs, one for children 3-5 years of age, and one for 5-8 year olds. They recognized that to prevent bullying in middle school or high school, they needed to start when children were much younger.

The program design is simple. A baby and her mother come to the classroom for a series of 9 monthly meetings, with additional facilitated meetings (sans baby) to prepare for the meetings and process afterwards.

The children have the opportunity see the babies and mothers lovingly interact, and to themselves interact with the babies, through singing nursery rhymes and playing games. They get to see the world from the baby’s perspective, literally, by lying on a blanket. The children also get to see how the babies change and grow over the 9 months.

Teachers whose students participated in the meetings noticed an immediate and marked change in the children’s behavior. They were kinder to each other and more respectful to the teachers.­

A statistical analysis of the pilot project confirmed that as the children developed their empathy, their bullying of peers and their disrespectful behaviors to teachers and staff decreased by almost 50%, a dramatic shift. And, these changes in the children have persisted for more than three years.

These innovative programs to develop empathy have spread across Canada and to other countries as well.

As conflict coaches and mediators, we recognize that building empathy is a major key in conflict resolution between family members, co-workers, or others. When people in conflict are able to understand the other’s perspective and somehow relate to it, that emotional shift makes resolving the more concrete issues far easier and opens the way to deeper, more helpful conversations.

When I work with coaching clients, and with mediation clients such as co-workers or parents and teens, I always hope not just for a solution to the current problem, but for transformation and learning, enhanced communication skills, and compassion for themselves and others to help them navigate future difficulties.

These baby “teachers” opened the hearts of the young children and shifted their attitudes and behavior toward empathy. The world would clearly be a kinder place if babies became a standard part of all pre school and K-3 curriculum. And the rest of us, adults and teens, could also benefit from the lessons that these babies teach.




Lorraine Segal

Lorraine Segal, M.A. is a Conflict Management and Communication Consultant, Coach, and Trainer. Through her own business, Conflict Remedy, Ms. Segal works with corporations and non-profits as well as governmental entities and individuals to promote harmonious and productive workplaces.  She is a consultant and trainer for County of Sonoma. And, at Sonoma… MORE >

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