This week, while I was preparing to jot out these thoughts on Michele Borba’s book Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, and particularly the second section “Practicing Empathy” that begins with the quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
It is one of the beautiful compensations of life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.”
I was surprised by a situation where my school asked another school if we could change the start time of one of our games to accommodate “Senior Night” and they said, unequivocally, “no.”
A week earlier we had been asked by the same school to roll back the start time of a game at their school and we’d agreed, so the refusal hit extra hard. I did my best to articulate our request, but the other school held to its decision, quoting CIF rules that showed they were legally in the right. It was a lesson for me in the importance of empathy.
At San Dieguito we pride ourselves on a campus community that puts a premium on seeing the world through the eyes of others. We recognize that we’re human and we make mistakes, but we strive to, as Borba suggests “move from ‘them’ to ‘us.’”
As a part of that journey, next week parents, students, teachers, and admin like me will meet to discuss Unselfie, and the importance of empathy at our San Dieguito Book Club. Our school community meets several times a year to talk about relevant books, and the opportunity for us to discuss the issues and challenges we face as we travel this path together make us stronger and more prepared to make a difference.
The first section of Unselfie discusses “Developing Empathy” and in the second section she writes about putting that empathy into practice. Much of Borba’s argument addresses parenting and the strategies parents can use to help their own kids practice empathy. She writes about kindness, explaining that:
Kindness is strengthened by seeing, hearing, and practicing kindness. … [and] kids must have ample opportunities and encouragement to practice kindness.”
Describing a school in Delaware that implemented a program to encourage this behavior, Borba explains that momentum “continued building throughout the year because the students continued doing simple, regular kind acts, and other kids saw or experienced them and wanted to do the same.”
At school we can do much to help support a commitment to empathy by putting students in positions where kindness is celebrated, encouraged, and where it can become a “simple, regular” part of the educational experience. This needn’t be didactic; it may be as easy as adults and students being more mindful about recognizing the kindness around them, and the school putting into place ongoing opportunities to recognize instances of empathy.
Here at San Dieguito I see examples of this in our ASB’s commitment to celebrating all students at assemblies, on our school’s Facebook page where students are recognized for being good to one another as well as for their accomplishments, and through programs like our Link Crew (where older students mentor and support younger ones), our PALs, and various clubs built around the ideas of being good people. I see it in the way our teachers treat our students, seeing them first as people and then as scholars. And I see it in the notes I get from kids, one this week so heartfelt it moved me almost to tears.
Borba spends some time talking about other advantages to practicing kindness, specifically citing scientific studies that suggest kindness leads to happier, less selfish, and more popular (as defined by having more friends, a slippery definition of popularity) kids.
In addition, she turns the discussion on adults, suggesting this scenario:
Pretend it’s twenty-five years from now and you’re at a family reunion eavesdropping on your now-grown kids discussing their childhoods. How are they describing your typical behavior? And what do they remember as “the most important messages” you told them as kids?”
Talk about giving adults pause.
The question, in a slightly altered form, is one great educators ask themselves often. Working with students as we do, it’s true that what we say is only a part of how we are perceived; what we do, how we carry ourselves, and the lessons we teach when we’re not purposefully teaching lessons does as much to define us in our students’ eyes.
As a dad (and as a principal) I read more closely as Borba described “how to cultivate kindness in children” including modeling kindness, expecting kindness in others, valuing kindness, reflecting on kindness, and explaining kindness. Her examples and suggestions have a real practicality that I look forward to discussing with the students, teachers, and parents who come to our book club next week. How might we incorporate a more thoughtful approach to encouraging empathy in our school? I believe our students know answers to that question that I would never think about.
In the final chapter of this middle section of her book, Borba describes the vitally important shift from seeing “them” to seeing “us.” Describing a study by social psychologist Muzafer Sherif, she quotes the psychologist who explained “Hostility gives way when groups pull together to achieve overriding goals that are real and compelling to all concerned.” As she notes: “Raising kids in a competitive environment not only can increase animosity but also suppress generosity and prosocial behaviors.” How important then that we work together for the benefit of all.
Back to our Senior Night. After some additional conversations with the other school, where we talked about helping each other, supporting students, and the importance of looking out for sister schools, the angels of our better nature prevailed and the start time was rolled back an hour. It was a decision good for kids, and an experience good for all of us.
The results of students, and adults too, practicing empathy is more than just a kinder school. As we see the world through the eyes of others and slowing ourselves down to ensure that we allow for multiple points of view, we not only make our school community better, we also enjoy those “beautiful compensations” that Emerson writes about: lives richer because of the kindness we show to others.
The San Dieguito Book Club meets on Monday, February 6, 2017 from 6:00-8:00 pm in our Media Center. Feel free to join us to talk about Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.