Delivered February 13, 2011 at First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, Cohasset, Massachusetts

You are taking a strong position by leading us to fully understand the spiritual, social and emotional impact of bullying.  In January you had the opportunity to sign the Cohasset Coalition for Caring Community pledge,  which is as follows:

I,_________, pledge to promote respect for human differences, to stand up for the basic rights and dignity of all people, and to avoid behavior that is hurtful to others.

Receive a skipper blue bracelet to remind us of the importance of living in kindness.  To date, nearly 3000 Cohasset residents, students, and people who work in our town, have signed and pledged to support kindness, respect, tolerance and dignity for individual differences.  We know this is just a first step but believe it makes a powerful statement that bullying will not be tolerated nor allowed.  First steps, such as the pledge, and the month spent studying bullying, are often the impetus that pushes forward positive social change.

If we look at bullying from the perspective of the Golden Rule, treat others as one would like to be treated, or do not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated, then we can regard it as the most essential  basis for the modern concept of human rights.  It is the definition of the ethics of reciprocity, which is part of the core foundation for having empathy.  The Golden Rule exists in all of the world’s great religions:  Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Taoism, among others.

It asks us to imagine yourself on the receiving end of the action in place of the other person.

This is a critical component for creating a culture and climate that is rooted in empathic understanding.  A culture that has empathy at its core is a culture that respects human differences.  It is a culture that is a moral society.  It is a culture whose fabric is a tapestry, textured and varied.  It is a culture that does not tolerate cruelty.  Empathy sets the stage for creating such a culture and climate.

Empathy is a skill that is gradually developed through out the lifespan.   It is the capacity to recognize and to share feelings that are being experienced by another.  It requires us to project ourselves into the situation and feelings of another person.  To quote an unknown source, “There are two parts of empathy:  skill, the tip of the iceberg, and attitude, the mass of the iceberg”.   I recently had a fifth grade teacher tell me that one of her students defined empathy as wearing another person’s shoes.   Nothing like the innocence of a child to aptly describe what empathy truly is.   The good news is that research today is showing us that empathy can be both taught and caught.

This is critical for us to consider given the data coming from current research.  One recent study indicated that college students today are 40% less empathetic than those who graduated 2 decades ago.   In addition,  understanding the impact the digital revolution is having on life today, socially, emotionally, and neurologically, is imperative.  When I hear adolescents tell their parents that they just don’t understand what it is like today, I tell them they are right.  The difference between the impact of bullying today versus 20 years ago is the difference between getting into a fight on the school yard versus the anonymous, instantaneous, world wide distribution of rumors, gossip, photos, etc.  For some who are bullied, it becomes relentless, with no safe place and no respite and has exposure of a magnitude that is hard to imagine.   We know that this can set in motion a systemic neurological change that is similar to the impact of abuse.  Bullying really is a form of abuse and can leave children and teens with the lasting scars of trauma.

We can see babies mimic parents and parents mimic babies with smiles.  If you have ever spent time in a room full of toddlers you know when one starts to cry, suddenly the whole room is crying.  We know children aged 7 – 12 are naturally inclined to feel for others in pain.  We understand the role the frontal lobe, the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex play in the developmental aspects of empathy.  Moral reasoning, self regulation, holding back inappropriate behavior, anticipating consequences, rationale thought and judgment are all involved.

So, what should we be doing to ensure we are helping our children develop empathy and to foster building a foundation for a culture and climate of kindness and respect?


Practice empathy as adults.  Try to really understand and to feel what others feel.  Use language that narrates this understanding.  Serve as reflective mirrors.  Think of this as role modeling in real time….seize every day opportunities to model empathy and to induce sympathetic feeling for others.


Have safe, connected, secure attached relationships with our children.  Attachment is a key factor in empathy.  It serves as an anchor while they develop and explore the social world and relationships.


Mirror and narrate what our children are feeling.  Ask them how they are feeling.  Recognize and acknowledge when you see them behaving in a pro social way and kind manner.  This helps build internal control and intrinsic value.  Help them see what they have in common with others rather than differences.  Teach them and encourage them to shift perspective and view things from another’s vantage.


Practice compassion.  Be friendly, make others feel welcome and wanted.  There is a neurological payoff for smiling.


Be helpful.  Reaching out to others creates pathways for connection.  Social and interpersonal connection foster understanding.  Again, there is a neurological payoff for doing so.


Listen to others and take time.  My husband Dan , often reminds me of a saying he learned from his father, you have two eyes, two ears, and one mouth, use them proportionately.  Also, remember the old jazz standard, accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.

We have the opportunity to “Be the Change”.  Ghandi suggested, be the change we want to see in the world.  Pay attention mindfully to how it makes you feel by living a life with respect, kindness and love.  You will feel better and be happier.  We will be helping our children learn to live with empathy.

Let it start with you.