On any day in middle school, someone will trip and fall, or maybe drop some books, and those nearby will laugh. Or in a classroom, someone will stumble over an answer, and another student will mimic her struggle. At lunch, middle schoolers might entertain each other by mocking someone with a disability or an unusual accent.
All of these are hurtful behaviors, yet the perpetrators give little thought to how mean they may sound. The immediate goal is to get a laugh; the overall goal is to win acceptance and popularity.
Just as teenagers don’t wake up one morning and decide to be more mature, neither do they suddenly acquire compassion for those who struggle. Like driving safely or leaving appropriate tips, being compassionate is a life skill that has to be taught. Here are three helpful steps:
Teach—and MODEL—empathy “They should know better!” It surprises parents when they hear that their children have said or done something that thoughtlessly hurt another. But peer pressure and impulsiveness rule at this age. We need to be talking to the kids about how to respond with kindness, even if it means pretending not to see the incident. Certainly jumping in and helping is better, but not adding to the embarrassment is a good option. Teach kids to imagine themselves in the same situation.
But parents also have to check their own attitudes. What do you say when your kids (who are clumsy at this age) fall up the stairs or knock over a drink? How about the slow-moving elderly driver in front of you? Empathy starts at home; if you want your kids to use it, you have to show them how.
Look for examples In a restaurant, when a server drops silverware and a passerby picks it up, or at a basketball game when the player who knocks someone over reaches down to help him up, or on TV when one sibling comforts another—all provide parents with the opportunity to say, “Hey, did you see that?” You may get an eyeroll in response, but at least you know you’ve been heard.
Mention it when you see it One common complaint in middle school is that parents are quick to criticize but slow to praise. When you notice a sibling choosing not to tease another, comment in a low-key tone: “I noticed you didn’t pick on her when you had the chance.” Don’t make a big deal out of it, but do acknowledge the desired behavior. I’ll thank students for running to grab paper towels for a spill or offering to go check on an upset classmate. “The behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated” is as true for the good behaviors as it is for the bad.
If you show them how to do it, show them where it happens, and show them you appreciate it when they practice it, middle schoolers will learn to make compassion a habit. And when they learn to use it on the small stages of home and school, it will carry over into the larger stage of adult life.
Sue Acuña is co-author with Cynthia Tobias of Middle School, The Inside Story: What Kids Tell Us But Don’t Tell You, available from your favorite bookseller. Sue currently teaches middle school at Concordia Lutheran in Tacoma, WA.
Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net