Can you teach kindness?

Why does bullying happen, and how can we prevent it and promote more kind, accepting environments? We speak to 'How To Create Kind Schools' author Jenny Hulme...


Can you teach kindness?

We speak to Jenny Hulme, author of How To Create Kind Schools, published earlier this year, to celebrate the anniversary of anti-bullying charity Kidscape

Why is it important for us to teach kindness?

It’s easy for us to assume those of us who’ve grown up in families that value kindness will, naturally, be kind. Life is complicated though, and if the culture of our school, college or workplace is unbalanced, we may find those things we value are conflicting and competing with each other. We might know kindness is important, but if we’re suddenly learning not to expect it, or that it isn’t valued or is seen as a sign of weakness, it can cause us to hesitate before we act, however uncomfortable that makes us feel. 

Children who turn to Kidscape are often as bewildered by the bystanders as they are by the bullies – those who they thought were kind, but who do nothing to stand up for them when bullying starts. They believe it must be something about them that’s to blame, and that knocks their confidence even more. That’s where learning comes in; driving change by providing the information, skills and confidence children – and all of us – need to be able to live our values.

How can our experience with kindness (or unkindness) at school affect our relationship with it as adults?

Schools say that, for a long time, education has undervalued what kindness can bring to adulthood and even propagated the idea that unkindness or bullying is part of growing up – preparing children for adulthood in some way. It’s clear, though, that bullying brings no benefits at all – either to the bully or the bullied. It can, instead, trigger a cycle of victimisation that can last a lifetime. Studies have shown victims of bullying, including very able children, stand a much lower chance of doing well at school and are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and poor physical health as adults. 

What if past experiences with unkindness make us afraid to show kindness for fear of looking weak?

So many people ask that question because they’ve been made to feel foolish or been bullied for showing empathy in the past. I was shocked when research showed hundreds of thousands of young people being bullied every day for being kind, or dropped from groups because they were caring for a parent or sibling at home, or ostracised for standing up for the underdog in their class. Naturally they’re going to carry that with them, and even wonder if kindness is worth it.

But some of the experts I talked to had helped children see that it was not being kind that led to them being bullied – it was being different. It was, crucially, others’ lack of respect and understanding of those differences. The same experts were helping schools identify how inequitable environments – the age-old popular/unpopular culture – can allow differences to be stigmatised and bullying to thrive, and children who seem strong and confident to cross a line and start building popularity by becoming manipulative and controlling.

So how do we teach kindness? 

There can be a real lack of understanding behind unkindness. For example, the young carer, who is often late for school as a result of a parent’s ill health, and who’s never available to attend social events, can become isolated and vulnerable to bullying without their peers recognising why. The child on the end of homophobic bullying, because of their looks or hobbies, can feel abused and worthless, while the rest of the class hearing so-called ‘gay banter’ gets used to mocking rather than respecting people who are different.

Research into ‘bystanding’ demonstrates that people who are given a seminar on compassion, or were empowered to help others, are more likely to go against the majority and help someone in need. But the schools and charities I visited illustrated what a complicated thing bullying is. Children require so much more than just an instruction to be kind.

Out of this comes a realisation that lessons in kindness and school’s anti-bullying policies had to break down barriers and create opportunities via mentoring, lunch clubs or visiting role models. Not to single out or patronise children, but to help them understand each other (their disability, family situation, sexual orientation, religion), and to nurture friendships in a more proactive way. Then, marginalised children rediscover their confidence and place in a group, while children who’d misunderstood them are given the chance to come out of their comfort zone or clique and learn about differences, and about themselves, too.

Young people can be pretty marvellous when given the opportunity, and teachers say they experience a new strength and self-awareness that had nothing to do with being popular and everything to do with the new mood of understanding, equality and empathy in the class.  

How can we do this in the workplace – in our everyday lives? What can we do if we see bullying?

Everyone – from world leaders to teachers – is becoming more aware of the need for tolerance, inclusion and community engagement. Supporting a change of culture is a good start. Create a more equitable place to work, where being kind and supportive is the norm. If there’s resistance to that, is it coming from those who want to defend the status quo? It can come from those people who don’t really want to share the wealth and benefits of social inclusion and who, if they’re honest, are slightly fearful of those who are different because of a disability, ethnic or social background, or sexual orientation perhaps.

How can we cultivate strength with kindness?

Perhaps by busting the myth that to be strong we have to be powerful and popular, and by promoting the fact that strength comes through better understanding and engagement with people. We can do that in our jobs, in our home, in our schools – in so many ways. And who knows where it could take us? 

How To Create Kind Schools: 12 Extraordinary Projects Making Schools Happier And Helping Every Child Fit In by Jenny Hulme (Jessica Kingsley, £15.99 ), celebrates the charity Kidscape, which has been working to tackle bullying in schools across the UK since 1985. For more on Anti-Bullying Week visit the Anti-Bullying Alliance

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Photograph: iStock