Teaching empathy

Empathy is a dying skill we have to re-learn fast

My friend, Ryan, pointed me towards a thought-provoking article on empathy earlier this week.


The whole article is worth giving your time to, but here is the key section:

What children do not come by naturally is empathy, the ability to understand another person’s perspective and want to help them. Empathy, as it turns out, is a skill — akin to math or science or writing — that must be taught, over and over and over. And it must be taught. Not only does empathy help turn children into more pleasing people; it also is a key to forging social connections that contribute to overall happiness and success.

No one does this better than Denmark [where] empathy is taught in schools, on par with math and science and literature…Danish students spend part of every week following a deliberate curriculum to help them hone their social skills and become more generous, compassionate and socially-conscious people.

The article connects empathy being a part of Denmark’s school curriculum to Denmark also being the happiest country on earth. On the flip side, research indicates that American’s are far less empathetic than the Danes but, not only that, empathy among college students has dropped over forty percent since the 1980s.

With ongoing globalisation and the way the internet brings us all closer to each other, the need for empathy is actually increasing. Take just one example: Twitter. The problems Twitter has with trolls and abuse has become systemic. The way in which so many of us seem able to completely disregard or not recognise the impact of our words and actions on others is alarming.

Change won’t happen by chance though. And the kind of change won’t happen simply because (if) Twitter finally gets around to protecting their users better. No, it’ll start with our kids. It’ll start with them being taught empathy; how to ‘hone their social skills and become more generous, compassionate and socially-conscious people’.

And yes, our schools should be part of this. But we have to set the right example in our homes too. As a parent, I have to model empathy and I have to teach empathy. Empathy is a learned behaviour and so the only way my girls will embody empathy is if they’re taught.

With the trajectory the world seems to be on right now, there is quite possibly nothing we need to focus on more than empathy. Divisions seem to be increasing and us-and-them mindsets are becoming more prevalent. We have to reverse this trend. We need to teach our kids—and ourselves!—how to understand another person’s perspective. This is a dying skill that we need to re-learn fast!

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Image: Joshua Clay

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