Can you teach a child to be nice?
If you’re a parent, chances are your kid has either been the victim of a bully, or perhaps been accused of being one themselves.
Just as students are given lessons in social studies and arithmetic, Chevy Chase-based teacher Linda Ryden firmly believes that kindness and thoughtfulness can also be taught in the classroom.
Ryden leads a unique ‘peace class’ at Lafayette Elementary School where she often assigns children a “kindness pal.”
The partner isn’t always someone the child would choose themselves, which is exactly the goal of the exercise. Ryden aims to have students think about doing nice things for everyone, even those outside their normal circle of friends.
Since implementing the class at the school, Ryden says the school has noticed a significant decrease in bullying.
“We’re trying to teach them to be mindful of other people’s feelings and to regulate their own feelings so they are not always spilling out onto each other,” Ryden said.
She says it’s important the lessons not stop in the classroom, and encourages parents to bestow thoughtfulness and empathy at home.
Ryden also says parents shouldn’t dismiss their own child’s mean behavior with a simple ‘kids will be kids’ philosophy. She fears by doing so, authority figures may give kids the message that its okay to belittle others.
Jennifer Kogan, a family therapist in Washington, says children who act mean can actually up those behaviors from well-intentioned parents.
Kogan cautions mothers and fathers are often unaware that their children overhear their rants about a boss or neighbor, or another driver on the road.
She says it’s also important for parents to work on their own self-esteem and make sure not to put themselves down in front of their children.
“Kids can really absorb how you are treating yourself,” says Kogan. “So, if you are the kind of parent who is being hard on themselves all the time and saying, ‘Oh, I really screwed that one up’ your child is actually absorbing that message.”
The therapist says if you feel good about yourself, your child will often follow your lead and have good self-esteem. In turn, they may even be nicer to others.
Curbing aggression can also be aided by limiting the amount of time a child spends in front of television.
Dr. Douglas Gentile says 50 years of research shows a direct relationship exists between viewing habits of a child and their aggression levels.
During the times when a child is allowed to view television, it is critical for a parent to ensure they are watching age-appropriate shows. Even shows such as “Arthur,” which target the ultra-young demographic, may not be the correct choice for all children.
Gentile says the well-intentioned lessons on the show will be over the heads of some pre-schoolers.
Similar age restrictions are important for video games.
Children who spend many hours playing violent games are at risk of becoming desensitized and may not be able to grasp what actions are accepted in society.
“[They] start to get the mindset that violence is more acceptable,” said Gentile.
Research shows students with parents who take a proactive approach in monitoring video game usage generally have higher grades and are in fewer fights than their peers who indulge in mass quantities of PlayStation and Xbox.
As children grow older and enter middle and high school, parents often wrestle over when to get involved if they suspect their child is a victim of bullying.
Dealing with such issues can be easier with elementary school age, according to Mary Ann Panarelli, who is the director of Intervention for Fairfax County Public Schools.
At a younger age, scheduling play-dates is often a simple and effective solution. She says simply by playing one-on-one the conflict will resolve itself.
As children begin middle school they often don’t want parents to directly intervene, Panarelli says.
However, in cases of persistent bullying, school social workers and counselors are available to speak with. Although it may upset the child, parents are encouraged to contact administrators if the situation escalates to the point where the student is skipping school or is threatened with bodily harm.
Panarelli believes often times students are unaware of the impact bullying and teasing can have on a classmate. Once approached in a group setting, the bullying typically stops.
WNEW’s Jenny Glick contributed to this report. Follow WNEW on Twitter.