Children learn empathy from a young age. How we all act and respond to children learning empathy may also help us grow ourselves.
You can imagine the children’s surprise when I began a 4th grade lesson by inviting them to take off their shoes. Most thought it was “cool” to be sock-footed in class. Several asked if they could put on their friend’s shoes. “In a sense,” I answered, “that’s what we’ll be doing today.” I then invited them to step into the shoes of the main character of the story I was about to tell. “Why would I suggest this?” I wondered aloud. “Why might I ask you to step into the shoes of another?” With many eager to answer, we all listened to one another and then agreed that to truly understand someone, we need to take their perspective and try to feel what they feel. Someone insightfully added, “We need to try to do that with all people, not only with our friends.” We agreed that we were talking about Empathy. I launched into the story about a 4th grader who was met with many mean-spirited comments throughout her school day. With keen insights each student suggested ways to create a kinder, more caring atmosphere. They suggested ways that they would reach out and help the main character.
In 1976, Martin Hoffman and Abraham Sagi, developmental psychologists, showed that children begin to develop empathic concern for others at a very young age, “with infants as young as 70 hours showing some responsiveness to other infants’ distress.” Empathy is considered the “social emotion” because it brings a sense of emotional connection with others. This relational awareness is the root of altruism and kindness. In other words, Hoffman says that, “it is empathizing with someone in pain, danger, or deprivation that moves people to act to help them.” Standing in the class, listening to the children, I knew they understood empathy and were now articulating it. I also knew that we had to keep it in their awareness throughout their education. I recently read an article by Richard Weissbourd, co-director of the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. This project is actively working to frame moral development towards caring about others and a commitment to justice. He emphasizes the need for children to practice caring for other people as well as the need to have role models in doing so. He reminds us that children watch us with “razor-sharp alertness.” They notice how we treat, try to understand and help others. They notice who we notice and care about. They notice who we listen to and who we reach out to. They notice in what ways we serve others.
As Weissbourd says, “Building empathy is the foundation of any caring and just society. And wonderfully, we just might find in building this empathy and humanity in children that we deepen and expand our own.”