Parenting is a Job: Teaching Empathy

Shira Abel (of Abel Communications) isn’t a mom blogger, but she’s a mom, and she’s got quite a way with words.

I’ve never had a guest blogger here before, but Shira is understandably outraged after reading an article about cyberbullying. I think you’ll enjoy what she has to say. I’ll be the first to add a me too. If you enjoy this, follow Shira on Twitter.

I’m angry. I’m angry at the parents of bullies who shirk the responsibility of parenting. I don’t like lazy parents in general – but this group gets a special award. On December 4, 2010 the NYTimes published an article about cyber bullying, As Bullies Go Digital, Parents Play Catch-Up and not surprisingly – how it’s often worse than the offline version. People often go further than they would, had the victim been directly in front of them.

Kids bully. I get that. I don’t like it though, and I certainly don’t think it needs to be an absolute in childhood. Assuming parents actually do their job. However it seems like much of the time, the parents of bullies don’t. Take one of the examples in the article, “…the mother of the third girl, the instigator, called. “ ‘It isn’t her fault,’ she said to my wife,” Major Woodson said. “The mom said: ‘I think this is way overblown. My daughter is being punished and she’s not the only one who did it.’ The mother did not apologize.”

Pardon me ma’am, but do you realize what type of example you are setting? Whether other children behaved poorly as well is really irrelevant. By making excuses this child will learn that bullying behavior is ok (her mother doesn’t seem sorry – why should she be?) And as a result we’ll have another stupid, selfish badly behaving adult in this world. And that, that makes me angry.

People – parenting is a job. If by chance your kid doesn’t have the wherewithal to make certain decisions on their own you need to teach them. And occasionally your kid will screw up. And when they screw up you have a responsibility. A responsibility to be the cop, judge and jury and yes – a responsibility to punish your child when they have done something wrong. You are not your child’s peer, nor should you be their friend during childhood. You are the caretaker, the protector and even their mentor. Friendship comes when the kid grows up (or so I’m told – my boys are 5 and 7).

I don’t believe in spanking, but I sure as heck believe in taking away privileges, grounding, extra chores and even a good old fashion public humiliation where the bully has to apologize in front of his or her peers. I’m tired of parents sloughing off responsibility because they don’t feel like putting in the work that’s necessary to raise a nice child. Kids need to know the difference between right and wrong. They need to know compassion.

Empathy isn’t very fashionable these days. I think it’s time we bring it back.

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  1. I completely agree with you that bullying is unacceptable and that parents who don’t think it is a big deal are being irresponsible. I think probably many of them were bullies themselves.

    However, I also think many of the “punishments” you listed are ineffective and just teach kids to be sure not to get caught next time or to make sure that whatever they are going to do is worth the punishment.

    I don’t think that punishment is the way to teach empathy.

    • I’m not saying that one teaches empathy through punishment. I’m sorry if I gave that impression. Empathy is taught through explanation and actions. But I do think if a kid does something wrong there should be consequences to their actions.

      • I think that one approach that can be useful, assuming the parents have taught their children to be compassionate and caring people, is to ask them what they think the consequences of their actions should be. As an adult, there won’t be anyone there to take their Nintendo away, so I’d rather they learn other ways to deal with a situation where they have wronged someone else.

  2. Teaching empathy is a popular subject for weekend parenting seminars, and foster-care retreats where I live. It’s such a nebulous subject, though. I’m not sold, yet, on the various strategies put to me on how to help my kids grow into compassionate humans. I try to teach them empathy by example. They need to see kindness to learn its strength and necessity, just as they need to see respect. I teach them accountability by making them apologize, by withholding privileges, by making them do the work to clean up the messes they make. Because I think empathy without accountability is useless. “It’s not my fault” – and especially “It’s not my problem” – helps no one, even if you really understand what they’re going through.

  3. I got caught cheating when I was a freshman in high school.

    My Mother explained (ha, she screamed!), that what I did was totally unfair to my teacher and my classmates. The teacher worked hard so that I had the opportunity to learn. My classmates may have worked hard for their grade but I had diminished their work and time by my actions.

    My Mother made me write a letter of apology to the teacher and another to the entire class.

    I had to give the teacher her letter and then read my letter outloud in front of and to the entire class. I had to include how my actions affected them.

    While I wasn’t being a bully, the lessons in empathy, honor and respect will never be forgotten.

    • I never even thought of cheating that way.

      I’d like to take this moment to apologize to my Anatomical Kinesiology class in my Junior year of college. I simply could not remember every part of the Krebs cycle, and I *might* have written some of it under my skirt.

  4. John

    I think you’ve fallen into the trap of pulling a few examples out of a narrowly written article to make your case. Why didn’t you cite the examples (in the article) where parents and kids did take accountability? You can pull apart any article and find the facts that fit your point of view. While bullying is definitely wrong, I don’t understand how teaching empathy is the same as demanding accountability.

    On another note, isn’t the public humiliation that you advocate just another form of bullying?

    • Two comments:

      1) Let’s not miss the boat by criticizing the initial article or the response to it. There is no dispute that cyber bullying is taking place.

      2) Logical consequences for a child’s actions make sense and they are effective. Public humiliation isn’t the same as bullying.

      • John

        Jack, I agree that logical consequences are effective, and certainly bullying of all kinds is taking place (although I don’t think at the levels that are being reported–but that’s for another day and another post I guess). But I disagree with your point about public humiliation. That is, at it’s core, one of the primary ways that bullying occurs.

        • I agree with John on this. I don’t think that public humiliation is appropriate at all.

    • I don’t think it’s public humiliation. I think it’s taking responsibility for your actions befitting of the crime (bully in public? apologize in public)

      Shira, I agree-it’s horrible and disgusting.

      • I think perhaps there is an issue here of terminology. In her post, Shira equated public humiliation with apologizing publicly. I do think that apologizing publicly is appropriate, if you bullied someone else publicly. But I don’t think that apologizing publicly amounts to public humiliation. There are parents that have forced their children to stand on a street corner holding a sign that outlined their “crime”. That, I think, is public humiliation.

        • Annie,

          Ok – I think we are basically saying the same thing. Perhaps the wording “public embarrassment” would work better? However, I do think that having to apologize for being a bully after doing something terrible to one of your peers in front of a whole lot of your peers would be humiliating. It would also (hopefully) give someone a level of humility.

          And no – I’m not suggesting someone put their child on a street corner with a sign admitting their crime.


          • I think it is more a matter of perspective. I don’t want my child to think of apologizing as something that is humiliating or embarrassing. Yes, it may be difficult to do sometimes, but it is part of being a good human being, and treating others with respect. I would prefer to cast that positive light on it when dealing with my children, so that they internalize it as the right thing to do, rather than as the mean punishment Mommy gave them. I think that will serve them better in the long-term and help turn them into people who face their responsibilities head-on rather than trying to run from them out of fear of being embarrassed or humiliated.

  5. Hmm…Okay. I want to agree with this post. It IS up to parents to be responsible enough to HOLD their children responsible in situations where the child has done something wrong.

    Although, I am one of those people that do not think EVERY wrong a child does is the direct fault of the parent. I really do my very best with my kids. I seek out advice when I’m unsure of what I should do…I have one of my children in therapy for some out of control tantrums (mostly the result of missing dad while he’s deployed…but something I can’t actually fix on my own b/c dad isn’t here!). I know when my parenting needs help & I seek it out. So, when I’m doing my very very best to make sure my child is behaving & following rules, and I find out that’s not true…or that my child is not quite as nice as I thought…I would hate to be judged as failing my child or somehow failing others. In *this* case – the mother acted defensively immediately. Because she was probably freaked out that it happened at all! Not b/c she thought her child was blameless…but in absorbing the details of the situation, she MUST have thought, “Surely some other children egged my child on! This isn’t my child’s fault! The child I know & love is sweet, happy, and INNOCENT of these accusations.” Her first reaction was to DEFEND her baby! Something ANY parent would do, right?

    Also – I am sure I have empathy…but I worked a job for 5 years where empathy was actually a part of my process…and I got marked off for it every time I was reviewed. When I was 6 months pregnant, and got a phone call from a terrified woman who was also 6 months pregnant…and I didn’t show any empathy for her situation, my boss said, “Maegan, you REALLY couldn’t think of anything to say to her?” I was at a loss. Why would I say something to her? She’s not going to feel better about anything until she sees a doctor…I’m not a doctor, I’m an insurance rep on the phone! Logically I didn’t see a NEED for empathy. What she NEEDED right then was to figure out if the costs of her medical bills were going to be covered, and if she would have a car to drive! And I *could* do that for her!

    So…Empathy isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be…and some people will be better at it than others. And sometimes it takes a long time to learn it…and you can’t always learn it from your parents. My kids certainly aren’t learning it from me! I don’t get all touchy-feely like that very often. If I do…it’s serious…or for someone I care deeply for. Logically, I know WHEN I should be feeling it…and I know how to fake it…but as a general rule…I am not an empathetic person. ;)

  6. I have said, and will probably say at least a thousand times more: ” Parent is a verb not a noun. It’s something you do, not something you are.”

    It’s seldom surprising when the bully in a class is the one whose parents don’t show up for anything, don’t get involved, and have a tendency to bully their own children into submission.

    That said, I don’t know that there is ‘one right way’ to parent either. I was with you up until you said “nor should you be their friend during childhood” – then I started to get all riled up and realized that you meant to write “nor do I believe you should be their friend in childhood.” Even though it’s not quite as assertive as the prior wording – ‘shoulds’ for other people implies that we know better than they.

    I am my daughter’s friend. She is mine. She’s also 7 1/2. But just like I have had more than one instance where I was someone’s boss & also their friend – there are appropriate times for friendship, and appropriate times for ‘boss/subordinate’ behavior. My daughter knows that yes, I am ‘the boss of her and the teller of her what to do’ (to quote the old school yard phrase.) Except when she’s at school. Then her bosses are the teachers and the principal.

    I am not, however, anyone else’s mom. It’s not my job to parent either the children bullying or their parents. It’s my job to defend and protect MY daughter and to give her the skills to do that on her own – while also imparting morals & values that will keep her from being anyone else’s bully.

    It is sad that the mother in the story didn’t understand that an apology goes a long way. Teaching your children to make amends is crucial. We teach best by showing. Sadly, that mother will probably never understand that she really owes her own daughter a huge apology.

    Nonetheless, it’s an awesome post Shira. Huge thanks to Jessica for having you guest post.

    • “nor do I believe you should be their friend in childhood.”

      We disagree about this. I don’t have a problem saying that parents shouldn’t be friends with their children when they are young. There has to be a line drawn so that they understand that it is not a level playing field.

      They need to understand that when you say no it is not a suggestion, it is no. To be clear, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t play with your children. I don’t suggest that to mean that one needs to be a drill sergeant.

      So perhaps we aren’t that far apart here, it might be a question of slightly different definitions..

      Sometimes one of the big challenges in parenting comes from having two parents who have very different styles, but that is probably best saved for a separate post.

  7. Oh, I totally believe in spankings. As well as taking away privileges. Oh, and especially public apologies.

    And, that parenting is a job.

  8. Shira, I think we all agree with your goals–for parents to take bullying seriously so it will stop. It’s clear that this mother didn’t take it seriously. But I also wonder about the value of forced apologies, which may be insincere and therefore worthless both for the victim and the perpetrator. No apology at all is better than a fake one (in my opinion).
    I’m also uncomfortable with the implication, in your post, that parents who don’t punish are doing a bad job. My mother never punished me, ever. That doesn’t mean she let me “get away” with bad behavior. I wanted to be good because she trusted me, gave me appropriate responsibility and listened to me (mostly!). If I acted irresponsibly she let me know her expectations and how my behavior affected others. I’m not saying that my mother’s method was the best or the only way to do things, but there are many approaches.
    [Jessica, the link to the NYT article doesn’t work.] I read in the article about how Judy handled her daughter’s bullying (p. 5). Taking away the computer and phone in this case was appropriate–not as a punishment but as a natural consequence, just like you wouldn’t let a teen drive your car for a while if you caught him driving drunk. But what really helped, apparently, were the long walks and the attempt to understand the emotional background behind the bullying. Eventually her child felt remorse and that would be the right time for an apology.

    • Hi Hannah,

      I think that many of us are on the same page here regarding teaching children to be accountable for their actions. The primary disconnect seems to be the terminology that is being used.

      The question of whether it is punishment or logical consequence is a different post. Or if you read above the definition of public humiliation which was qualified in this post to be a public apology.

      I’m also uncomfortable with the implication, in your post, that parents who don’t punish are doing a bad job. I understand that. As long as your child isn’t hurting others or being hurt I don’t care how you parent, it is your business.

      It is when there is a problem and the parent seems to ignore or gloss over it that I get irritated.

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