Raising children who stand up for what’s right.
Published: January 30, 2020
By: Malia Jacobson
Here’s an unwelcome fact: Most kids will experience bullying at school, even if they’re not directly involved as a victim or perpetrator. Studies show that 70 percent of students witness bullying at school and 35 to 60 percent are directly involved.
What’s less certain is how those kids will respond to injustice. Will they have the moral courage to stand up for themselves or others? Can they do the right thing without a trusted adult there to coach them?
When kids see a bully in action, we hope they’ll do what 11-year-old Henry did. When Henry, then 8, saw a peer mocking a classmate with disabilities and excluding her from a playground game, he told the bully to stop, calling out the actions as unfair and unkind, says his mom, Libby.
Today’s school playgrounds need more of this type of moral courage, says Michele Borba, author of End Peer Cruelty, Build Empathy: The Proven 6Rs of Bullying Prevention That Create Inclusive, Safe, and Caring Schools. “Today, research shows that peer cruelty is escalating, personal entitlement is going up, while empathy is going down,” she says. “It’s discouraging.”
At a time when most Americans feel the country’s values are declining — 77 percent agreed in a 2018 Gallup poll, the most negative rating since 2002 — how can we raise kids who show courage when it counts?
THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF MORAL COURAGE
For many, it’s hard to talk about moral courage without picturing those who helped Jews during World War II. Their photos, letters and accounts of experiences create an unforgettable lesson in moral courage.
“There’s a story of a local Holocaust survivor who says that every day, someone he didn’t know slipped him a sandwich,” says Ilana Cone Kennedy, a Holocaust center director. “We hope kids will come away with a sense that their voice matters, and that their actions make a difference.”
Learning about racial bias and genocide is an important part of social justice education for students and teachers alike, research shows.
Researcher Kristen Renwick Monroe, PhD, studies the traits of those who helped Jews escape during World War II. Author of The Heart of Altruism: Perceptions of a Common Humanity, Monroe interviewed WWII rescuers and found they had a different self-image than bystanders (those who saw Jews in danger but did nothing) or Nazi supporters.
Compared to bystanders and Nazi supporters, Monroe found that rescuers had a more broadly defined sense of identity, viewing themselves as part of a common humanity, instead of as a member of an exclusive group. Rescuers also had stronger sense of agency, while bystanders tended to have a weak sense of personal control over their lives. In other words, rescuers acted because they believed their actions mattered.
Empathy is another cornerstone of moral courage. “I am convinced that empathy is the core to goodness,” says Borba. The ability to identify with another’s perspective, built from babyhood on through one-on-one interactions, closely bonded relationships and even reading, is an essential trait of those who stand up for others.
Teaching kids to identify and name their emotions can help build empathy and moral courage, too. “When you teach emotional identification, kids learn, ‘He looks sad, I’ll go be a helper,’” says Borba.
WHAT ABOUT MY KID?
It seems clear that when it comes to moral courage, parents or caregivers can’t simply count on chance.
“Parents who raise good kids don’t do so by accident,” says Borba.
“You have to be intentional about it.”
But since moral courage often means doing the right thing when parents and teachers aren’t around, how can we know if kids are getting it right?
Sometimes, kids share their experience of standing up for a peer or for themselves on the playground. But moral courage also shows up in smaller, less obvious ways. Look for things like honesty and personal responsibility, and encourage growth in those areas, says Richard Peterson, a childcare administrator.
Watch kids as they play and interact with classmates, says Peterson. Are they easily influenced by others, or do they stand up to peer pressure? When children report wrongdoing (their own or that of others), take responsibility for their own actions, and show honesty, they’re displaying moral courage, he says.
Other examples are doing homework or chores without being reminded or turning in something you found that doesn’t belong to you, he notes.
“Even the simplest action, like picking up trash instead of stepping over it or leaving it for someone else to deal with, shows moral courage.”
If your child falls a little short on these measures of morality, or if you’d simply like to encourage moral growth, there’s good news. New research shows that the traits we associate with moral courage — like empathy, self-control, and honesty — get stronger with practice and effort.
In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, psychologist Carol S. Dweck, PhD, wrote about her decades of research on intelligence and effort. Her now-famous research found that children with a growth mindset — or the understanding that intelligence could be developed through effort — were more successful than those who believed that intelligence was fixed.
These days, she’s applying this concept to the development of moral traits like self-control. In one of her recent studies, Dweck found that preschoolers can learn to resist temptation and delay gratification after listening to a story about it.
If, as Dweck’s research shows, good character can be taught, then anti-bullying education programs in schools can help guide growth. But it’s important that anti-bullying education doesn’t focus too narrowly on the role of the bully — a role few kids identify with. Teaching kids about character means helping them understand all the ways people can contribute to or resist injustice, says Kennedy.
“There are different roles we all can play — perpetrator, bystander, up-stander — and people can move from one category to the next,” she says. “It’s important to know which role you’re in for each situation, and what you might be able to do differently.”
Many effective anti-bulling programs have a strong peer advocacy element — in other words, they teach kids to stand up for other kids — because this approach is proven to work. Research shows that when other kids intervene, most bullying stops within 10 seconds. Like any strategy, though, peer advocacy only works when kids have the skills and knowledge they need.
Eight-year-old Henry’s courage added fuel to the school’s ongoing dialogue around bullying, inclusion and playground behavior. His class started a sportsmanship club; another third-grade classroom adopted an inclusive “You can’t say you can’t play” guideline for recess and after-school games.
When it comes to homegrown goodness, talking with your child about your values, and modeling those values yourself, is hard to beat.
“Today’s kids are really facing an uphill challenge in relationship engagement,” says Henry’s mom, Libby. “We talk a lot at home about our responsibility to try and make the world a better place. I’m very proud of the person Henry is and continues to become.”