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Who Teaches Empathy?

During recess today, I was sitting at a picnic table with some kindergarten teachers in a playground for primary grade students. They were talking about whose job it is to teach children empathy.

Mary, a middle-aged teacher who has four boys at home was talking to a young teacher, Katelyn, who has not yet married or had children of her own. Mary shared with Katelyn a parent conference she had with a mother who was concerned that her son was not learning empathy at school. The boy physically fights with his fellow students and lies about doing so. The mother complained that her son always picks fights with his sister and lies all the time at home as well. She told Mary that she did not know what to do.

Mary asked the mom what she did when her daughter complained that her brother was picking on her. The mother replied that she would attempt to scold or discipline her son, but that he would cry and say he was sorry. Then she would give him a hug and let him go. Mary asked the mom if she thought she gained any success with that approach. The mom admitted that she did not. Mary told the mom that while her son can get time out from recess or be sent to the principal for his transgressions in elementary school, if the physical abuse and lying were to continue it would not be a pretty picture when her son is older. The mom was dumbfounded and desperate. Her comment was, “How do I teach empathy?”

Mary shared with Katelyn that she answered by saying that her boys always had consequences if they transgressed against one another. Katelyn expressed that she would be uncomfortable telling a parent what to do with her child. Mary replied that she did not tell the parent, “You should . . .” Rather, she simply told the mother what happened at her home.

So who teaches empathy? The job belongs to everyone who knows better. If a child is surrounded by nurturing adults that portray the same message about how to treat other people, either by direct teaching or by example, the message will be more credible. When a parent throws his/her hands up in helplessness, a coach emphasizes the win at all costs and their child faces consequences for bad behavior at school, there is no coherence to the message of respecting others. That message is diluted when only one source of adult contact is preaching it. Parents, adult relatives, older siblings, teachers, coaches and religious leaders all share the job of shaping empathetic minds. Only when all parties participate in this venture will empathy be successful.

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