Teaching Empathy - Is it a good idea?

Child Comforting Another Child
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Teaching children to be tolerant and care about others. That sounds like a wonderful idea. If everyone were tolerant and caring, the world would be a better place. That's a very big "if." Nevertheless, the push toward teaching our children to be more empathic is growing. More and more schools are looking for ways to teach kids how to be empathic. What exactly is empathy and is teaching it in school really a good idea?

What Is Empathy?

It is not unusual for people to use empathy and sympathy interchangeably, as though the two words mean the same thing. They are, however, quite different, even though both words come from the root word pathos, meaning "emotion." The prefixes of the two words indicate the difference in meanings. Empathy is made with the prefix en-, meaning "in," while sympathy is made with the prefix syn-, meaning "together. Sympathy, therefore means to feel something with another, to feel for them, to understand how they feel, while empathy means to actually take on the feelings of another, to actually feel as they do. When you sympathize with someone, you feel FOR them, but when you empathize with someone, you feel AS they do.

The Importance of Sympathy and Empathy

Both sympathy and empathy require some degree of understanding what another person is going through. They both require that you be compassionate.

Empathy, however, goes farther. It requires you to either have experienced what another person has experienced or have a strong enough imagination to be able to imagine what it must actually feel like to have experienced with the other person has experienced. If we want strong communities, we want to be able, not just to sympathize with others, but to empathize with them as well.

Sympathy is important because it helps people see that you care about them. Empathy, on the other hand, is important because if you can empathize with another person, you are less likely to cause that person any pain because you will feel that pain right along with them. Empathy is what leads us to tear up when we see another person tear up, whether the tears of tears of sorrow or joy. We wouldn't want to physically harm another person because we will feel how the other person would suffer. We won't hurt a person emotionally for the same reason.

Why Teach Empathy?

Because of the importance of empathy, it seems natural to want to teach our children to be empathetic. More empathetic children will end up being more empathetic adults. They will be less likely to become bullies when they are in school, or at home or at work when they grow up. Bullying has become a major problem in schools, although I often wonder if it's a bigger problem than it was when I was in school or if it is just getting more attention.

In any case, no one wants a society full of bullies. We want our children to be empathetic, because we believe it will make the world a better place.

Eliminating bullying isn't the only reason for wanting to teach empathy to kids. Researchers have found that empathy can help reduce stress, which negatively affects a child's ability to learn. This means that children who experience stress and get empathy from others will be better able to learn and more likely to be successful in school. When all the children in a school learn to be empathetic, the school should be bully free with a stress-free atmosphere where every child is better able to learn.

Is Teaching Empathy Really a Good Idea? Maybe not

There is no doubt that empathy is important and it seems more than reasonable and logical for us to teach children to be empathetic. But there are a few problems.

  • Every school in America could teach empathy, but that does not mean the lessons will take on every child. In other words, not every child would come away any more empathetic than he was when he started.
  • Many gifted children are already highly sensitive and quite empathetic. Some, particularly the younger ones, already have a hard time dealing with their sensitivities. What, then, is the justification for putting them through lessons designed to help them become more empathetic?
  • During which school year should empathy be taught? If it's taught to every age group, the lessons will be repeated year after year. How long does it take to teach empathy? Twelve years?
  • Focusing on teaching empathy to every student means that students who don't need to lessons get them anyway while the students who need them most, like the bullies, can easily ignore the lessons and instead pick out new targets for bullying among those who are becoming more empathetic. People who are apathetic can fall into the "empathy trap," which means that they easily become targets of sociopaths. This is not to say bullies are sociopaths, but sociopaths do exist and they do target those with high empathy.

What Can We Do Instead of Teaching Empathy?

I would not say that we should not teach empathy. But we might want to do more thinking about how, when, and to whom we teach it. Incorporating some lessons in empathy when kids study literature is a great idea. Asking them to consider how characters feel and how they would feel if they were in the character's shoes can help kids consider what it feels like to be someone else.

The kids who need it the lessons most, though, should be where our energies teaching empathy should go. Bullies need some empathy intervention on their own. Workshops or counseling sessions focused on teaching empathy to the bullies could be beneficial. Kids who come from stressful environments and who appear to be troubled, would also benefit from lessons in empathy. The point is that when the kids who need it most are singled out and given lessons, they are more likely to benefit than if they sit in a room full of kids who already have no problems empathizing with others.

But the group I'd most like to see get lessons in empathy are the teachers. I would like them to learn what it is like to be a gifted child in a classroom where the other kids see them as misfits and where even the teacher doesn't understand them. I would like them to learn what it's like to be the parent of a gifted kid, too. Once the teachers learn to be more empathetic, they can better model empathetic behavior for everyone else.

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