By Galit Breen
When I wrote Kindness Wins, a guide for teaching our kids how to be kind online, the (truly) only backlash I heard was that kids who bully come from parents who bully, so teaching kindness won’t help. I disagree. Here’s why.
The theory that bullies raise bullies is one we’ve all heard and that is, indeed, sometimes true. Cruelty is taught, mimicked, and learned.
But online cruelty is different.
We’re the first generation of parents raising digital kids without having been digital kids ourselves. When trying to help our kids maneuver online, we can’t fall back on our own experiences or what our parents and teachers told us—because we weren’t online as impulsive kids.
Our kids are still learning to filter their thoughts, to think of others first, to consider the far-reaching consequences of their actions. They’re experimenting and learning and making mistakes and trying again. In other words, they’re doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. But the immediacy of the online world makes it very, very difficult for them to do this without hurtful repercussions for themselves or for others.
The real reason many kids are unkind online is because they haven’t been directly taught how to maneuver online kindly. And the real reason most parents aren’t doing this teaching is because they don’t realize they need to.
Online kindness is the new must-have talk with our kids. If the after school specials of our youth were still around, online kindness would be a series.
In my decade of being a classroom teacher, I learned that the most effective way to teach anything new is to directly introduce the concept, allow for practice, and then revisit and fine-tune the lessons based on what was learned and what wasn’t.
We would never show our kids a car, give them one driving lesson, hand them keys, and wish them luck. Cyberbullying, teen depression, and suicide statistics tell us that teaching online kindness is just as vital.
So in the same vein, we can’t tell our kids to be nice online once, hand them a phone and social media passwords, and cross our fingers and hope they’ll be okay.
We have to talk specifics. We have to sit down and show them how loud the Internet is, that there’s a person on the other side of the screen, how to disagree with someone respectfully online. We have to practice—test drive—online kindness with them. These lessons come in bite-size pieces. Short, direct, and repeated conversations. We have to continually check in—and on—our kids’ online use to make sure they’re safe online, of course. But also to make sure that they’re being kind. Every kid will a make mistake or two or ten. We can’t make them infallible, but we can help them learn.
This is why I wrote Kindness Wins. Not because I don’t understand the reality that some kids are raised in homes where cyberbullying would be accepted as okay behavior. But because I don’t think this is the norm. I believe most of us are doing the absolute best we can with what we know. And once we know better, we can choose to do better.
So the one thing you can do right now to help with cyberbullying is to commit to having direct conversations with your kids or your students or your peers about how to be kind online. We don’t have to agree on the details, just that the conversation is worthy. This is how we can create a culture where cyberbullying is the outlier and online kindness is the expected norm.
Galit Breen is the author of Kindness Wins, a simple no-nonsense guide to teaching our kids how to be kind online. Galit was a classroom and reading teacher for ten years. She has a master’s degree in education and a bachelor’s degree in human development. Her writing has been featured in various online magazines including Brain, Child, The Huffington Post, TIME, and xoJane. She lives in Minnesota with her husband, three children, and a ridiculously spoiled miniature golden doodle. Galit blogs at TheseLittleWaves.com and tweets at @GalitBreen.