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September 1, 2015 / 17 Elul, 5775
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The Bully Epidemic


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A bunch of third grade girls stood in a circle at recess.

“Oooh, you have a Cinderella lunchbox! That’s so babyish,” Leah snorted.

Now it was Orly’s turn, “Yeah, well, I bet Suri still sucks her thumb at night!” Orly said, mimicking the thumb sucking motion.

“Ha. I’m surprised she didn’t bring her teddy bear to school,” Leah responded, looking around the circle of girls to see who else would join in. This was a favorite recess activity.

Suri was turning redder and redder, staring at the group of girls, hoping that someone would see her pain and put a stop to the taunting.

A few of the girls were shifting uncomfortably, but no one said a thing, until Orly said, “Eww. Get away from her. Who knows if she is toilet trained?”

With that, the rest of the girls ran away.

***

In a school only a few streets away, Yehuda was suffering his own humiliation.

“Yes, Yehuda, eat those potato chips!” Baruch said, as he shoved a fistful onto Yehuda’s cheek.

“Ouch,” Yehuda, said, rubbing his scraped face.

“Oh, I didn’t know it would hurt you. I thought maybe your fat cheeks would protect you.”

Yehuda said nothing, just hoping that Baruch would stop and go away.

“Do you feel it when someone punches you?” Baruch taunted, lifting his arm to punch Yehuda in the stomach.

Just then, a teacher walked by, and pulled the boys apart. But, Yehuda knew that this was just another day in the schoolyard.

***

The two situations that I have described above, while extremely painful to read are very real depictions of the bullying that goes on in our schools. But, as you might notice often there are differences between boys’ and girls’ bullying.

When interviewed about the subject, Carrie Goldman, the author of the book, Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear, explains that bullying comes about pretty equally between the genders, but it happens in different ways. Girls tend to do more of the “mean girl” syndrome. The bullying is more underhanded and veiled. There is taunting and verbal abuse. There are more rumors and exclusion. On the other hand, with boys, you see more of the physical bullying: hitting and using physical aggression to intimidate.

According to researcher Dan Olweus, bullying is characterized by three factors:

* It is repetitive (not a one-time event in the hall, but a regular ongoing problem).
* It is unwanted (not two-way teasing where both parties are having fun, but instead a situation where someone is on the receiving end of taunts and aggression).
* It takes place in the context of a power imbalance (a bigger kid against a smaller kid, or multiple kids against a single kid, or a kid with more social capital against a kid with less social capital).

Therefore, the situations that Suri and Yehuda find themselves in are definitely bullying. The incidents are repetitive, unwanted and include a power imbalance.

In her book, Goldman argues that parents and educators often tell the victims to fight back. While a necessary step today, Goldman argues that there is a much more important step in combating bullying: instead of hitting back, make sure that no hitting happens to begin with. She explains:

Children are not born cruel. Babies in diapers do not assess each other as too fat, too poor, too dark-skinned, too nerdy, too conceited. Born innocent, they start learning stereotypes as soon as they understand language, and we see bullying behaviors in children as young as toddlers. Since preschoolers who display marked aggressiveness have a higher likelihood of being bullies in older grades, the earlier intervention begins, the better the results. It is much easier to inculcate kindness and acceptance into a five-year-old who acts like a bully than into a fifteen-year-old who acts like a bully.

Empathy Training

So, how do we combat bullying before it starts? How do we inculcate kindness and acceptance into five-year-olds? The key to kindness and acceptance is empathy. A lot of people argue that you cannot teach empathy. While I agree that it is difficult, I do believe it is possible.

First, what is empathy? Empathy is made up of multiple components:

* An awareness of a “self” that is separate from other people.
* The ability to recognize another person’s perspective.
* The ability to regulate emotional responses.

I have compiled a list of several ideas in order to help your child “learn” empathy:

Support children in times of distress. When children feel that their own emotional needs are met, they are better able to recognize the emotional needs of others. Therefore, helping your children recover from their own emotional setbacks will help them have empathy for other people.

Talk to your kids. When parents talk to their children as if they have a mind of their own and treat them as individuals, it encourages the children to see others as individuals with their own feelings and emotions.

Point out commonalities. Studies show that kids are more likely to feel empathy for people who they feel are familiar or similar to them. Therefore, helping children understand the similarities between them and those around them will inevitably enable them to have more empathy.

Teach about the hot-cold empathy gap. Once your children are older, you can point out to them what researchers call the hot-cold empathy gap. The hot-cold empathy gap means that when a person is in an emotional state, they experience events very differently than others who are unemotional at the time. For instance, if you are really full, you might not understand someone else’s food cravings. Thus, helping your children “walk in someone else’s shoes” will enable them to empathize.

Bullying is truly an epidemic that affects the whole community, and therefore the burden falls on the community to contain and prevent it. Teaching our children empathy is the first step towards eradicating the culture of bullying in our schools.

About the Author: An acclaimed educator and social skills ​specialist​, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@gmail.com.


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