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New Classes Teach Kids How to Be Nice

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Scarsdale Middle School is teaching empathy classes this year in school in hopes that classmates will be nicer to one another. Is this a good idea? Psychologist Dr. Cara Gardenswartz weighs in.

girl comforting another girl

Clinical psychologist Dr. Cara Gardenswartz, Ph.D: I am a firm believer in having schools promote empathy and social learning. Given that children spend more than half of their waking time in school, it is extremely important that they learn not only academics, but also how to be good citizens of the world.

In doing so, schools can help children achieve their full human potential. Ideally, schools would have twice-weekly periods on emotional and social issues. In some schools, such periods are called "Life Skills." Life skills include:
Using good judgement
Responsibility--taking initiative, being accountable
Flexibility--being able to adapt
Effort--doing one's personal best
Problem-solving--creating solutions for challenging situations
Interpersonal skills--respect, caring for others, cooperating, and making friends
Tolerance--recognizing and respecting other points of view and understanding different kinds of families (divorced, gay, single parent, bi-racial)

Empathy is a running theme throughout this type of programming.

At the very least, schools should have programming to include conflict resolution, and anti-bullying. Ideally, there would also be a time during school for community or class meetings in which every student has a voice and every student learns to listen actively to others.

Life skills programs decrease conflict in school, and promote less conflict outside of school, and hopefully even counter some of the negative consequences of the conflict that children may experience at home.

Tips for moms to raise a nicer child:

- Be kind to your child. Use gentle voices. Model kindness (verbally and behaviorally) toward other family members and people in your community. Show physical affection.

- When you see someone being unkind, point it out to your child and talk about other ways the person can act. When your child is unkind, ask them why and come up with alternatives together.

- Admit when you are wrong.

- Be consistent in your parenting and enforce consequences. Setting limits with your child will lead to a less self-centered child, and also promote acceptable behavior.

- Expect your child to help around the house and in the community (doing good deeds -- e.g., lemonade stand to raise money for charity).

- Teach your child to respect people including neighborhood workers (postal workers, etc.).

- Help your child to be a good friend by observing them with their friends and talking about what makes someone a kind friend and person.

- Do not allow your child to tease or bully other people. Talk to them about how it would feel if someone teased or bullied them.

- When your child is kind, recognize it: "I see how you hugged your friend when she was upset."

- Read stories together. I recommend the book "How to Be a Friend" to read with your child and to open dialogue. Also when reading with your children, talk about the characters in the books and their motives and actions.

Most importantly, model empathy and be kind but firm with your children. They will internalize what they see and feel.

Do you think empathy classes are a good idea?

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10 comments so far | Post a comment now
Arun Toke April 7, 2009, 3:52 PM

Dear Cara
I am happy to see your work in this important area. We would be open to seeing an article for our pages on this topic. We are a nonprofit magazine and contributions to our magazine are a labor of love.
Let me know if you would like to write about 500 to 700 word article for our Sept issue when schools open for their new year. I would be happy to send you a sample issue so you know what we are about.
Best wishes,

Anonymous April 7, 2009, 11:24 PM

This is such a great article. I see parents all the time who don’t understand why their kids don’t behave but fail to realize they are modeling unkind behavior.

messymom April 8, 2009, 7:21 PM

i like the way you suggest talking to your kids. instead of saying good job- explaining what they are doing.

Anonymous April 9, 2009, 3:14 PM

dr cara- do you have a book?

Margorie April 14, 2009, 1:01 PM

mom logic- i appreciate when you guys do pieces with good advice like this. the other stuff on celebs without help to us moms gets pretty old

Marjorie April 17, 2009, 9:29 AM

I’m on IDEALIST and still believe the world can be a better place and the best way to achieve improvement is to start with the children. I believe Dr. Gardenswartz’s suggestions should be the basis of a curriculum that be made mandatory in schools throughout the USA and as a model for schools in all nations of the world.

julia April 17, 2009, 9:40 AM

Congratulations to Arun Toke for the 1st comment. Now let’s hope the media in general follow that lead and picks up the wise advice from Dr. G and spread it throughout our nation. It’s about time we stop reading and hearing about all the negatives and only get postive suggestions after the negatives (which have already planted bad ideas into some sick minds) happen. The postive approach, starting at a young age, is what we need more of. Perhaps the schools should offer parenting programs as well.

Charlene LMT April 17, 2009, 9:39 PM

Although I am not a Mom, I enjoyed this article as I was bullied as a child and understand the results of a lack of conflict resolution. I am hopeful that this wonderful advice will encourage other Moms to help the children understand that it can be easy to hurt someone else and that it is not ok. Every child is special and deserves to be spoken with gently.

jennifer May 1, 2009, 8:14 PM

Great article. I love how the author points out the influence and amount of time kids spend at school. Bullying and other unkind behavior should never be tolerated. Parents and schools have a responsibility to intervene and protect children.

Pj Calhoun May 4, 2009, 8:16 PM

I applaud the fact that someone has finally figured out what our children are lacking. While I agree that manners, etiquette and empathy are characteristics sorely missing in the upcoming generation, I take great exception to the idea that the schools, ONCE AGAIN, should be burdened with RAISING our children.

This training is the responsibility of the parents. Teachers should only be teaching academics; not personal hygiene, morals, sex education, manners, right from wrong, bullying, prejudice, birth control methods, or any of the other myriad of subjects that have been hoisted on them by parents who are too busy, embarrassed, uneducated or just plain unconcerned to accept the responsiblities.

The school districts should make every parent sign an contractual agreement upon enrollment of the child into the system that states the parent understands and agrees that school is NOT responsible for raising the child, nor for teaching any of the above-listed items. All parents should be required to sign the form prior to the child being accepted into school.

Arizona’s national ranking on the quality of education our children receive is deplorable. I believe it is, in part, due to the time taken away from the basics (Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, etc) and spent on family issues. Our children deserve a quality education. Our teachers are quite capable of delivering it to them, if they are allowed. We owe it to them all to rethink this idea.

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