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Nurturing the better angels of their nature: teaching empathy

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently compared the plight of injured 5-year-old Syrian girl Rouwaida Hanoun to that of Anne Frank, the teen diarist who perished in a Nazi concentration camp.

Kristof unsurprisingly received some flak for this, yet the point of his piece was uncontentious: we didn’t save Frank, who is now revered globally as a symbol of the tragedy of indifference. Why haven’t we learned our lesson and become empathic towards civilian Syrians and their children?

Though Kristof is still hopeful that Syrian children can be saved, time is running out to teach empathy to current decision-makers. So, how can we at least inculcate it in future generations?

What is empathy?

To instil empathy, we first need to understand it. According to Nicole McDonald and Daniel Messenger of the University of Miami, Florida, in their article, The Development of Empathy: How, When, and Why, empathy is “the ability to feel or imagine another person’s emotional experience”.

How empathy develops

The nature or nurture debate is settled regarding empathy, and it’s not a case of either/or: both genetics and environment shape a child’s empathic response. As for how this happens, it’s more complex than feeling compassion for a wounded girl from Aleppo.

Empathy, as mentioned, is somewhat innate. McDonald and Messenger, whose piece was published in the journal Free will, Emotions, and Moral Actions: Philosophy and Neuroscience in Dialogue, cite a study that shows that from 18 hours post-birth, infants who hear another infant cry show distress. It is suggested that this behaviour is a precursor to the development of empathy. It is not empathy, per se, because the infant may simply be internalising that distress as if it’s their own, and reacting accordingly.

From the age of 2, however, the authors explain, “along with the development of self-other differentiation, perspective taking, and emotion regulation … there appears to be a transformation from concern for the self to a capability for concern for the other.” That is, actual empathy begins to appear. If a 2-year-old met a clearly tormented Rouwaida Hanoun, for example, they might comfortingly touch or speak to her, share their toys with her, or try to pleasantly distract her.

By preschool to school age, children generally have theory of mind. This means they know others have different thoughts and feelings to them. Empathy-wise, this means that, in addition to feeling an emotional compulsion to console someone who is upset, they can understand why the person feels this way. For instance, they might think, Rouwaida is sad because bad people hurt her.

Teaching empathy

Sandra Crosser, professor of education at Ohio Northern University, said teaching empathy often comes naturally to teachers, and, as well as this, “the play-based [childcare or preschool] classroom is particularly suited to helping children focus on others”.

As for the teaching of empathy itself, Crosser suggests it be done in an age-gradated manner. With those aged 2 and under, it’s a little difficult. As McDonald and Messenger explain, “They may become distressed themselves, may not know how to be helpful, and may err in offering comfort in a way that would suit them, rather than the individual in distress.” So, for these tiny tots, role play with a toy or doll can sow the groundwork for learning real empathy later on.

For 3-year-olds, empathy can be taught more explicitly. Joan Cole Duffell, executive director of the American non-profit Committee for Children, in an interview in Pacific Standard, said the first step is to show children to decode others’ facial expressions: “It’s very specific, because if the kids say, ‘Well, Jamal looks really happy’, the teacher would say, ‘How can you tell? What is it about Jamal’s face that tells you he’s looking happy?’ There’s a lot of learning around what a smile looks like.”

By implication, once children perceive and understand others’ emotions, it follows that they can empathise with those who are experiencing negative ones.

Crosser suggested another way of teaching 3-year-olds emotion comprehension and, consequently, empathy: “Try having children mimic your voice by saying the same sentence in a variety of ways – fearful, whining, surprised, angry, etc. Be sure to label the emotion. A great book for this is Walter Was Worried by Laura Vaccaro Seeger.”

At age 4 or 5, theory of mind development is in effect, and empathy can be inculcated in more complex ways. For instance, children can be engaged “…in [a] discussion of the emotions of the characters in stories they read to the group. I like Flop Ear, That is Not My Hat, Millions of Cats, Where the Wild Things Are, A Chair for My Mother, Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, Koala Lou, Cinderella, Whistle for Willie, The Snowy Day, Peter’s Chair, and Wombat Divine,” Crosser offered.

Melissa*, a preschool teacher from Sydney, encourages empathy in her everyday interactions with children. In addition to modelling empathic behaviour, and teaching empathy through fictional characters during story time, role play and discussions, her preschool also “…uses and teaches the mottos ‘sharing is caring’, and ‘at kindy we are all friends’.”

She has noticed the difference in empathy development between her older and younger charges. “The 4- to 5-year-olds are more empathetic towards others [peers and adults] than the 2- to 3-year-olds,” she advised. She gave the following example: “A 5-year-old girl came to tell the teacher that her friend didn’t have her water bottle and needed a glass of water. She said ‘She is very thirsty – poor Eden.’ ”

It is important that Melissa teaches empathy – for a thirsty peer or a refugee such as the Syrian girl, Rouwaida – because, as Crosser described, genetics can influence the extent of a person’s innate empathy. Melissa noticed this play out in reality: “The more empathetic children are those of the more softly spoken, calm, caring and gentle parents. Often as teachers we comment, ‘He or she sounds just like their mum!’ ” Therefore, for those naturally less empathically inclined, teachers can top up their empathy proclivities.

Empathy matters

Sure, empathy sounds nice, but is it useful? In short, yes. There are several reasons humans are biologically inclined to empathise (though, as mentioned, this varies in extent between people), and generally become more empathic as they mature.

First, McDonald and Messenger submit that: “The ability to empathise with others’ distress may be an important factor in learning right from wrong.” So, empathy informs our basic moral framework. In the context of Rouwaida, being empathic towards her might ultimately teach children that violence against innocent civilians is wrong.

Come school-age, the academic value of empathy becomes emphasised, said Committee for Children’s Cole Duffell. She cited a meta-study, which demonstrated that quality teaching of social-emotional skills, including empathy, raised students’ grades by an average of 11 per cent.

Fast-forward to toddlers’ adult futures, and empathy remains at least as critical, if not becoming more so. For one, it is vital to the maintenance of healthy romantic relationships, as it is “…associated with the attachment dimensions of trust and of comfort with interpersonal closeness…”, McDonald and Messenger offer.

Empathy is also key to people’s professional lives. In her e-book, Global Greatness: How Social-Emotional Learning Helps Children Succeed in School, the Workplace, and Life, Cole Duffell explained why the workplaces of today, and certainly those of the future, require more social aptitude than ever, including empathy. She referenced working in a home office as one scenario where this is needed, as “It takes more effort and skill to connect on a human level with someone when you’re not in the same room with them.” Increasing workplace diversity also necessitates empathy for those with different cultural norms and knowledge bases, she argued.

More broadly, empathy can be extended to those outside of a person’s immediate personal or professional domain – to Syrian refugees, for example. This may not be self-serving, but is beneficial to humanity at large.

Teaching empathy may place children like Rouwaida in more caring hands.

*Name has been changed.

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