Developing Empathy

Posted February 13th, 2013 by Elaine in Child, Parenting, Teens & Tweens

IMG_8848I’m guessing if you asked many parents if they wanted an empathetic child, they’d respond yes. And most of those same parents spend loads of time prepping their children for school, singing the A-B-C’s and reciting various counting rhymes. And of course, every early childhood classroom places some emphasis on developing empathy within their charges “how do you think that makes Sam feel when you take his things?” “It looks like Oscar is sad to be at school today”. But what happens when children head off to elementary school?

Although I’m not about to accuse an elementary classroom of being devoid of empathy, I will suggest that the teaching of it takes a backseat to many other pursuits. In my own child’s school, I believe the counselor has 12 scheduled visits with his classroom this year. TWELVE – to teach a whole host of things, one of which is probably empathy.

The group Start Empathy is working to change that emphasis and incorporate empathy into the whole curriculum. And as a parent, it’s hard for me not to wish this emphasis was in my own child’s elementary school.

With a focus on empathy, children can learn to work together to solve problems. Children can learn to resist cutting someone else’s ideas off at the pass, because they respect that this could make the other child feel poorly. Just imagine what change might be possible if schools set teaching empathy as their primary goal, and let the more academic skills fall in around it.

At home, parents can play a huge role. For example, we can listen to our children, even when the phone is ringing. We can model empathy, something that we likely already do, but maybe if we keep it in the forefront of our parenting, we’ll do an even better job.

Since the Newtown shootings, I’ve often thought – for someone to go into that school and wreak such havoc and then turn the gun on himself, he must have thought his own life was valueless. And maybe, somewhere along the way, someone had the opportunity to give his live value, and maybe that would’ve changed everything that happened on that horrible day. I want my children to know they are loved. I want your children to know the same thing. I want to build a world of empathy.

What are your thoughts on empathy? Can we teach it? Is there a place for it in the school curriculum?

I was introduced to the group Start Empathy at a lunch I attended at Nora’s restaurant in DC. I was not required to write about the group, and all opinions are my own.




7 Responses to “Developing Empathy”

  1. Lisa

    I think we so need this – but I disagree that it’s the schools responsibility to teach it. It’s the schools responsibility to teach the kids facts so that they can turn around and spit yhem back on a test. Learning something like empathy starts at home. Let’s look to the people that reside or are close to the kids. Who are those people? My guess is that the empathy class needs to be taught to the parents or caregivers.

    Empathetic parents will teach their kids to be kind, forgiving and loving to everyone.

    • Corey Feldman

      I disagree with you. The way it is under no child left behind is essentially teaching kids to regurgitate facts for a test. But that is not what it could be doing. Spewing facts just test rote memory. The schools should be teaching kids how to think critically and learn. That is their responsibility. I would also argue that teaching empathy is part of teaching critical thought and the ability to learn and synthesize information. I agree it should start and home but that doesn’t excuse the schools from failing to meet their true responsibilities of a free and appropriate education, not just a piece of paper that shoes nothing more that the kids can repeat back what has been said to them.

      • Elaine

        Among the advantages human have over machines is their ability to feel and think creatively. So yes, I agree with you that our education system ought to be working to strengthen those advantages, not just help them learn facts that machines are equally good at learning. Thank you for pointing that out.

    • Elaine

      I guess there are two issues. First, you might think that teaching empathy and facts shortchanges on or the other, in which case you have to choose one over the other. Second, you might think that school are an ineffective tool for teaching empathy, so why bother? But I wonder if there’s not some middle ground, where teachers are modeling empathy and integrating the teaching of it into the classroom. And yes, I’d love for parents and caregivers to take classes on empathy as well – because I think they matter much more than school. But that doesn’t mean we can’t teach – and students can’t benefit – from instruction of their own.

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