18. Empathy

via roots of empathy

Many parents, researchers and educators are interested in understanding how empathy develops in children.  Empathy – defined as the capacity to or action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner. Arguably the most socially-meaningful part of the definition is: “being sensitive to …the feelings, thoughts and experience of another.”  This is where the magic happens (or doesn’t).  The ability to not only name another person’s perspective (i.e. If I hit my brother he will feel sad) but to actually “feel” what another feels (i.e. If I hit my brother he will feel sad AND I will feel sad) can have an impact on behavior.

Teaching empathy to children is a lofty goal – especially with so vague a definition.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to say “foster” empathy or “set the occasion for” empathy.  Either way, a neat organization out of Canada called Roots of Empathy, has undertaken the challenge in a really innovative way.  They offer a video on their website which is certainly worth the time it takes to watch.

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4 thoughts on “18. Empathy

  1. What an amazing program! Empathy is something I try to show my children when we’re discussing hurt feelings in the classroom, but I agree that it is a very difficult thing to teach.

    1. It is neat that you are embedding it in your curriculum. It would seem that using real life examples would help them make the connection. I would love to see more research about what works! Hard to know what to measure as indices of empathy…

  2. Lofty is a great word. As sensitive as E is to her own feelings – not always expressing them or knowing how to, of course – she seems pretty apathetic to how she impacts others (i.e. esp. little sis). Perhaps this is just age-appropriate ego-centricism? Regardless, trying to teach her to care about others’ feelings has been a daunting task. I do think there is an element of a heart change that must occur, not simply learned behaviors, though some (or you!) might argue w/ me on that. 🙂 Will check out video.

    1. I will not argue, in fact I will agree!! I really have this sense that “empathy” is an inappropriate description of what is developmentally appropriate for young children. Perhaps something more along the lines of emerging perspective taking – i.e. just being able to predict how someone else may feel in a given situation. It seems to me that true empathy (feeling with vs. feeling for) is rare, even among adults.

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