This Father's day is Empathy Day

This Father's day is Empathy Day

“Tomorrow is Fathers day in our school. You have to come to my class. You can sit with me. Yaaay”

How do you fight this pure unadulterated enthusiasm from a five year old. I had to reluctantly agree. And was dragged along with a few other, equally reluctant fathers to a pre-school with four and five year olds.

So it was Father’s day at my daughter’s school. Its a reasonably good school in a upscale neighborhood. Which means all the kids come by cars. The school itself is well maintained, clean and well staffed. The teachers are caring, and hopefully reasonably compensated. There is an art class, a music class and a dance room. And security guards at the entrance. A well stocked library.

Probably representing less than 1% of the schools in India.

So, this elite-ish school ends up with self selected and homogenous set of children. Upwardly mobile, upper middle class parents who can afford the fees and live in the neighborhood. Whose children go from the cocoons of airconditioned houses to airconditioned cars to airconditioned schools.

Representing less than 1% of India.

And thats what worries me. Am i really helping my daughter. She is in a school which is not at all representative of the world around us. What skills and tools will she develop in such an environment? Will she have the skills and the confidence to navigate unfamiliar terrains and develop her own personality, as she grows up?

As studies have shown

by the time they are four, children already discriminate their own group from that of others, even when the groups are as arbitrary as Hutu and Tutsi or Serb and Croat. Children who are given a blue t-shirt rather than a red one to wear will then say that that they prefer to play with other children with a blue shirt. The human impulse to depersonalize “the others” seems as deep as the impulse to care about the people closest to you. Reestablishing that sense of personal intimacy with the “others” may be one of the best ways of bringing about global moral change.

So the question really is – how do you create an environment in such schools to develop children who are open to others and care about things beyond themselves. Not only because these skills are what i desire in my children, but because these skills are absolutely necessary in the future. Where there are no jobs, but only changemaking assignments.

Ashoka’s Changemaker schools program has done pioneering work in building a network of changemaking schools based on the core curriculum of teaching empathy and changemaking skills in schools. While the program is hugely popular over the world, its recently launched in India with 7 changemaker schools. More schools are chosing to join this program and it gives me hope.

And what is empathy? The ability to step into someone else’s shoes and see the world from their perspective. Very different from sympathy. Watch this video for a nice animated explaination of Empathy.

Kids can be taught Empathy and kids can learn empathy if taught. And teaching Empathy is not to be left to schools. As parents we can play our role too.

Unlike intelligence and physical attractiveness, which depend largely on genetics, empathy is a skill that children learn. Its value is multifold. Children who are empathic tend to do better in school, in social situations, and in their adult careers. Children and teenagers who have the greatest amount of skill at empathy are viewed as leaders by their peers. The best teachers of that skill are the children’s parents.

Children as young as 18 months can learn to understand emotions and relate to them. And respond. 3-5 years can grasp empathy and adopt them in their daily lives. So, no matter what age, we can share our learnings on empathy with them. More so, when we are putting them in the cocoons of elitism where there is little scope for spontaneous learning and development.

And it starts by helping our children understand their own feelings.

it provides the basic tools for understanding the behavior and feelings of others. For instance, when dealing with a child who has hurt another person, help him or her “anchor how they felt in the moment,” says Mary Gordon, Ashoka Fellow and founder of Roots of Empathy, a school-based program designed to foster compassion. “We always think we should start with, ‘How do you think so-and-so felt?’ But you will be more successful if you start with, ‘You must have felt very upset.’ The trick is to help children describe how they felt, so that the next time this happens, they’ve got language. Now, they can say ‘I’m feeling like I did when I bit Johnny.'”

When children are able to understand their own feelings, they are closer to being able to understand that Johnny was also hurt and upset by being bitten – that “switch” is the spark for a change in behavior.

But understanding suffering alone does not teach empathy, says Gordon, which helps explain why children who suffer more – enduring abuse at home, for instance – are more likely to become bullies. It’s not that they don’t know what it feels like to be hurt; it’s that they have learned that violence is the way to express anger or assert power.

In Gordon’s Roots of Empathy program, which is currently being used in about 3,000 kindergartens, elementary schools and middle schools in Canada, and 40 schools in Seattle, children get to see a visiting parent and infant interact in the classroom about once a month, and watch the foundations of empathy being built. When the baby cries, the Roots of Empathy instructor helps the mother and students think about what might be bothering the baby and how to make things better.

Students are taught that a crying baby isn’t a bad baby, but a baby with a problem. By trying to figure out what’s going on, the children learn to see the world through the infant’s eyes, and to understand what it might be like to have needs but not be able to express them clearly.

So this Father’s day, me and my daughter are creating the Empathy Day. If you want, you can too. If you need help, here are some interesting videos to get your started.

Happy Father’s (Empathy) Day!

For Pre-Schoolers

For Early Schoolers (please view these yourselves before sharing with children, this one is very intense)

For Teenagers

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