Developing Empathy

Next month our San Dieguito Book Club will gather to talk about Michele Borba’s book Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. The book is divided into three parts: Developing, Practicing, and Living Empathy, and over the next few weeks I’ll do a post on each section as a teaser for our discussion, an invitation for folks to read the book, or maybe just food for our school community’s collective thought.

Empathy is a value close to our hearts here at San Dieguito, where we pride ourselves on a campus environment where students can be themselves and can learn from each other. I have the privilege of MCing a school assembly with a student this Friday, and at the end of the assembly we’re going to do our best to sing that last tune from The Blues Brothers. It’s introduced by Dan Ackroyd’s character, and the adapted monologue we’ll use will go like this: “We’re so glad to see so many of you lovely people here today. We certainly hope you all enjoyed the show. And remember, people, that no matter who you are and what you do to live, thrive and survive, there’re still some things that makes us all the same. You. Me. Them. Everybody. Everybody.” That’s when we launch into Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.

SNL 40th Anniversary Special

I’m so thankful that San Dieguito strives to be that somebody to our students, staff, and families.

But how do we develop empathy? In Unselfie, Borba suggests that students can learn “emotional literacy” and that doing so matters much. “Before you can empathize,” she writes, “you have to be able to read someone else’s, or your own, emotions so you can tune in to their feelings.” How then, to do this important work?

Borba cites our “plugged in” culture as hampering our efforts to connect emotionally, as well as our differing gender expectations, but ultimately lands on the side of optimism, writing:

New science shows babies arrive hardwired to tune in to feelings. But parents must hold those simple, old-fashioned, back-and-forth chats with face to face-to-face connections to nurture their children’s capacity to care.”

Old fashioned conversation. Listening. Talking with those we care about.

Sounds like a book club.

Or good parenting, good teaching, and good friendship.

Borba goes on to lay out specific ideas for teaching empathy including playing with babies, caring for pets, tutoring children, and talking with older relatives. Her chapter about helping students “stop and tune in, look face to face, focus on feelings, and express the feelings” not only inspired me to think about how I parent, but also to think about how I interact with those around me.

But recognizing emotions in others, and even listening to their stories, isn’t the end of the story. In a culture in which Borba says “narcissism is an epidemic in the western world” and where “many schools are joining the ‘self-esteem bandwagon’” developing a “moral identity” that includes a work ethic, empathy, and altruism takes conscious effort.
This thoughtful and particular effort is a highlight of Borba’s second chapter, where she suggests that:

What we say about our children helps define who they are the type of people they believe themselves to be. Too much praise can make kids more self-centered, more competitive, and more prone to cut others down. Too little encouragement can erode self esteem. But the right words can help children see themselves as kids, considerate, caring people and want to act in a way that supports that image.”

Borba suggests strategies and specific ideas for how to find and use these “right words” and “age-by-age strategies” for helping students develop their own moral identities. Many of these ideas strike me as “those simple, old-fashioned, back-and-forth chats” that our world could use more of.

In addition, she gives educators much to think about with regard to challenging students, and gives administrators like me the important prompting to have discussions about the value of productive academic struggle in the process of learning, and the need to focus on learning, not just issuing high grades. In a world of supercharged college applications this can be easier said than done, but easy isn’t one of the promises of our work and doing the right thing sometimes takes more grit than taking the easier route.

cover-unselfie-by-michele-borba-500x750One route Borba suggests is vital for all students to take is “learning to walk in another’s shoes.” Much of the discussion in Unselfie around this issue focuses on parenting and how parents can help their kids see other points of view (even as they see their kids’ side of things), but her examples about a preschool teacher of firefighter’s students in San Diego and a German principal who worked with the sons and daughters of soldiers being deployed to Afghanistan resonated with me as paragons of adults showing empathy for their students and teaching those students how they could support each other and the adults in their own lives.

The former English teacher in me loved the final chapter in Borba’s first section on Developing Empathy: Reading to Cultivate Empathy. Long have I felt that to see another’s point of view one need only pick up a well written novel or piece of nonfiction that introduces another’s perspective. Seeing the world through the eyes of a character by Alice Walker or Amy Tan, or looking at a part of the country described by Jonathan Kozol or Torey Hayden can shake a student’s (or listening adult’s) world in a way that makes a lasting difference.

to-kill-a-mockingbirdBorba uses examples like Ramona the Pest and To Kill a Mockingbird to make her point that literature has the capacity to help build empathy, particularly in the hands of great teachers who are able to help students process their own emotions and the emotions of the characters in the stories they read.

Reading together and talking about what we read builds empathy, community, and connections.

If you’re game, I’d love to talk about a book we read together on February 6, 2017 at our San Dieguito Book Club, Unselfie by Michele Borba. See you at 6:00-8:00 in our library!

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3 thoughts on “Developing Empathy

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