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Babies, bullies and the power of empathy

Mary Hasson

My son’s soccer team needed to eat. But 14 nine-year-old boys crowding into Panera during the lunchtime rush equals chaos. After a tough but victorious soccer game, the boys’ natural exuberance and energy spilled out in a few shoves, elbows, and good-natured tussles while they waited in line. But they welcomed the restaurant’s warmth and the prospect of food.

Twenty minutes in, the kids had finished but the parents lingered, unwilling to leave their cozy booths. Fortunately for the dining peace of the other patrons, the boys found a settling diversion: a baby.

Like iron filings drawn to a magnet, they crowded around the youngest sibling of one of their teammates. The little guy, ”Jake,” was 18 months old, with a huge smile and hardly any hair. He was, they decided, really cool.

“Powerful” is more accurate. Jake had those boys mesmerized. They gathered around him while he orchestrated their laughs with funny sounds and wild flourishes as he dropped napkins, spoons, and food, over and over. They spent 45 minutes with Jake, jostling only for the prized position next to him, which conveyed the right to feed and entertain him.

Fourteen nine-year-old boys… tamed by a 30-pounder wearing diapers.

It’s baby power.

I’ve seen it before. Our oldest son, Mike, was 16 when his youngest brother was born. Like his siblings below him, Mike learned to stretch, to listen and respond to others’ needs, because that’s what you do in a big family. It’s hard to stay self-absorbed—a typical teenage tendency--when the baby’s crying and needs you to make it better.

Mike’s friends, many of whom had no younger siblings, were fascinated by the baby. These strapping young men, moving in fits and starts towards maturity, were uniformly kind, compassionate, and gentle towards our youngest. The baby elicited qualities too easily hidden behind the masks of teenage boys.

Powerful new research suggests that the boys’ reactions are typical: the gentling influence of a baby extends beyond the immediate family to children and adolescents who interact with mom and baby on a regular basis.

That’s the power of babies: they teach us love, kindness and empathy.

And some psychologists believe that the power of babies holds promise as a solution to pervasive bullying.

It’s sorely needed.

Bullying drew media scrutiny this year, after several tragic suicides resulted from bullies’ cruelty. Roughly half of American high school students admit they’ve bullied someone at least once and nearly half have been bullied themselves.

So how does baby power turn bullies around?

Psychologists have long seen a correlation between antisocial behavior, like bullying, and the perpetrator’s lack of empathy. An innovative Canadian program, Roots of Empathy, aims to instill empathy, caring, and compassion in school children—and to reduce aggression--through regular classroom visits by a mother and baby. For months, the children “practice” empathy, kindness, and compassion as they interact with the baby. Follow-up discussions make it stick.

Studies show that participating children reflect immediate improvement, exhibiting more desirable social qualities, like empathy and helpfulness, and less aggression.

Babies turn bullies into better human beings. And the benefits carry over for years, changing lives in the process.

The genius of the Roots program is that it’s found a way to capture and pass on, in a school setting, part of the natural dynamic of a big family: familiarity with younger children, exposure to mother-baby love, and practice understanding and responding to babies’ feelings. The capacity for empathy expands.

The sad irony of the program, however, is that the dynamic the program seeks to create ought to be available within families themselves, or at least within the extended family.

And it could be. As John Paul II reminds parents, in the “Letter to Families,” that when parents generously welcome another child, “The child becomes a gift to its brothers, sisters, parents and entire family.”

Perhaps if more parents gave their children the gift of a sibling, like Jake, or reached out to include a large family within their extended family orbit, then we could let baby power work its magic.

And the bully problem just might solve itself.

Topics: Family , Motherhood , Parenting

Mary Rice Hasson, the mother of seven, is a Fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C. She blogs at wordsfromcana.

View all articles by Mary Hasson

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October 20, 2014

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