Teaching Empathy

Did anyone see that piece on empathy in the New York Times last week?  Middle school administrators talked about how you can’t have “kids saving Darfur [in the classroom] and isolating a peer in the lunchroom.”    But some students questioned how much the school should be allowed to interfere, and others said you can talk about empathy all you want, there are still going to be mean girls and bullying boys.

Is empathy teachable?  Is it appropriate for schools to teach it?

The three schools I studied for my book were very different from each other in their empathy curriculum.  The two public schools sometimes talked about character education, had a few posters about treating others with respect hung up on the classroom walls, but generally did not get too involved in kid culture.  But the third one — a private, progressive school — considered children’s empathy as important as math.

They had annual events devoted to raising children’s awareness about particular kinds of difference.  They incorporated varying cultures in festivals and art.  But empathy was a priority on more than just a few special days a year.  Teachers considered it their job to build a collaborative culture in the classroom.

One teacher told me:  “There are days when the kids come in from recess, and I was planning to teach math, and they’ll come in and say “Hey Jimmy said this or that to me, called me a name,” or whatever and then I’ll think to myself “whoops, there goes math.”

Did their empathy curriculum work?  Well, yes and no.  It did seem to work for the sorts of differences that are easier to celebrate — racial/ethnic background, sexuality.  Kids at this school were more empathetic in these areas, the school seemed like a friendlier, safer place for kids, and many of the kids there also seemed more aware of the political dimensions of these differences.  But social class differences were challenging — harder for the school to mount a concerted campaign about, harder for people to find ways to celebrate such difference, harder for the community to talk about explicitly.  In the meantime, some parents did report to me instances of teasing based on class differences.

Still, the empathy curriculum worked, where it was being applied.  And it gave me some skepticism about the middle school discussed in the New York Times article, where administrators and students argued about whether or not the school could ban the wearing of special sweatshirts commonly given out after Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, wearable party favors displaying the names of all those who had been invited.  If your school community cannot agree about whether or not those sweatshirts are appropriate for school wear, then you do not have an empathy curriculum that is working.


(This is the logo for the Mosaic Project, a Bay Area organization that brings kids of varying backgrounds together and helps them navigate difference safely).

What does this have to do with kids’ consumer culture, which is ostensibly what the book is about?  As it turns out, everything.  Kids’ anxieties about difference fueled their consumer emergencies and shaped their relationships with each other, with their parents, with themselves.

To call this “character education” diminishes the fundamental import of this issue, makes it seem more optional, makes it seem as if schools don’t bother with it, then the matter will just lie there, dormant, waiting for a teacher to have time outside of test prep and NCLB mandates to pay attention to how kids treat each other.

But actually, the kids in the classrooms with the posters and not much other guidance on this issue learned their own lessons about the social world and the knife edge of difference, in the sort of Lord-of-the-Flies fury that resulted when kids’ culture went unremarked upon.

Teaching empathy matters, not only for how kids turn out, but the nature of their daily lives right now.  Empathy curriculum honors difference, and as kids will tell you, we are all the Other at one point or another.

Explore posts in the same categories: children and schools

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