When I was in my first year of medical school, we were enrolled in a weekly seminar and practicum called "Doctoring." We began by learning how to interview patients. After our individual interviews, we would meet in small groups to discuss how the interviews had gone, and what emotions had come up for the patient, and for the student. Some of us had "life experience," or at least had held a job. But some, and it was very easy to identify which ones, had done nothing but study (very hard, and very long hours) their entire lives. They seemed younger than their years and immature.
One of this group was in agony each week, because she didn't understand what empathy was. She learned the definition, of course: "the capacity to understand, be aware, be sensitive to, and vicariously experience 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" (Webster's Dictionary). She listened to others in the group talk about the empathy they felt for their patient, and discuss how hard it must have been for that patient to have their illness. "I don't feel anything for the patient," she said, which sounds horrible, but at least she was acknowledging and asking for help with this unfortunate and puzzling issue. She understood the importance of having empathy.
Can empathy be taught? Certainly, some people seem more endowed with empathy than others, born with large amounts of compassion. Animals can even have empathy. Pre-verbal infants can also demonstrate empathy: what I like to refer to as "contagious crying" is one example. I also remember when my daughter, maybe 9 months old, upon seeing my on the brink of tears when I was very ill, crawled onto my lap, put her arms around me, and kissed me, to comfort me. I was stunned by this display of empathy in such a young child.
Clearly, empathy is an example of a trait which is part nature, and part nurture. Jane Brody, of The New York Times, discussed this topic recently ("Empathy's Natural, But Nurturing It Helps
," February 15, 2010). The studies she examined and experts she interviewed noted that besides having healthy self-esteem and secure attachments to their caregivers, teaching children to understand and identify what their emotions are and also what others are feeling are a few steps to teaching empathy. For example, telling a child who is crying because he didn't get his way, "You are upset because you feel frustrated that you didn't get a chance to play with that toy."
Explaining is one thing, but I think empathy may be best taught by example. Modeling good behavior and compassion towards others is an excellent way to teach or increase levels of empathy and compassion in children. In her article Jane Brody described the type of modeling that can be done at home, and at school:
"Parents who are sympathetic to the feelings of others and rise to a need for help, especially when it is not in their own best interest, can teach children how to identify feelings, think beyond themselves and respond empathetically to others... In school, teachers who inspire empathy are those who recognize and address the feelings behind a child’s behavior. The most effective teachers are warm and affectionate — and when trying to correct bad behavior they remain calm, not punitive."
I thought about this recently when Marcie Wollesen, my daughter's kindergarten teacher at a public school in San Francisco, brought her class of five and six year olds on two field trips to facilities serving the homeless. The concept of this type of field trip might catch you off guard; not the usual field trips the kids have to the beach, the Symphony, and museums. While community service has been made part of the curriculum in many school districts, it is usually not introduced until middle school or later.
The first of this two-part field trip series was to a local soup kitchen, and the second to a family shelter. Marcie, who has also taught third grade, has been leading these field trips on and off for several years. She started by holding sock drives at school: "Once the third graders wrote letters asking companies for socks and only one of them delivered: Gold Toe Socks. We asked them again this year and got two huge boxes full of socks for children, women, and men." In the past, she would collect the socks and one of the parents would deliver them to a shelter where she volunteered, but this year she wanted to do it in person, and bring the kids along.
I asked Marcie what she explains to a group of five and six year olds about homelessness: "I just talked to them about how they'd feel about being homeless and never having any brand new socks to wear. I tried to get them to imagine what it would be like to not have a warm bed, food, and someone to tuck them into their bed at night. It's important to me to instill a sense of service and caring for others into elementary school children while their hearts are still wide open."
Marcie's goal, of teaching empathy, has shown some early results. The kids responded eagerly to the sock drive and to another request for donations for Haiti. "Yesterday I was talking about growing up poor and always getting hand me down clothes," she said, " and kids raised their hands and said that their parents were poor, too, and didn't have any toys as children."
I was one of the parent chaperones on the second fieldtrip, to a family shelter. Before touring the facility, some of the children proudly gave their donations of clothing and toys to the staff. As we toured the various rooms in the shelter-- the dining area, the play room, the after-school room, and the rooftop playground, the social worker who was our tour guide told the children that, just like in their own homes, this was where the children ate, played, studied. Because the field trip was during normal school hours, there were no residents present during our tour. The children looked very eager to play in a playroom and on a play structure that were new to them. I was not sure how much they got from the trip (at least not from the interview I held with the three kids who rode in my car on the way back.)
Another class parent, Angela Young, who coordinated the field trips, had this to say about what she hoped the kids would gain from these experiences: "It is my hope that the kids gain a perspective that there are families who don’t have a home or bed to sleep in everyday, and that there are places where people who are sad and lonely can come and get some food, take a shower and others will care for them. I hope that my daughter knows that she can make another little girl happy by simply sharing one of her dolls or books."
Early results seem positive: one parent told Marcie that her daughter thanked her for giving her a home and a bed. And themes of compassion and homelessness have even made their way into some of the stories the children have dictated: one student made a story in which she gives a pillow to a homeless old woman.
This is a good start. While people may be born with varying degrees of empathy, it is promising that this value can be nurtured through instruction and example.
Have any of your kids' teachers brought their classes on field trips to homeless shelters or other programs for the needy? What are some of the ways in which you think adults can teach empathy to children?