Over the last decade, legions of schools and parents have become focused on how to develop empathy in children. Empathy is a cornerstone of a proliferating array of social-emotional learning programs in schools. It’s touted in parent advice books. Ashoka, a nonprofit organization, has recently received 15 million dollars to “activate” empathy worldwide.
But notions about what empathy is and how to teach it are clouded by myths. If we want children to understand, experience and value the feelings of others—a critical goal—it’s vital to challenge these myths. Below are 3 common myths about empathy.
Myth 1: Many people equate empathy with taking the perspective of others or experiencing the feelings of others. But con men, torturers or young men who manipulate young women can take the perspective of others. They can often experience the feelings of others as well. What they don’t do is value the perspectives or feelings of others. While taking the perspective of others is necessary, it’s certainly not sufficient. We also need children to value these experiences and feelings. Rather than focusing on empathy, parents and teachers might focus instead on appreciation , on how children come to both know and value others’ feelings and views.
Myth 2: Adults often talk about children as if they do or do not have empathy. Yet almost all children have empathy. Sociopaths are the rare exception. The question is who they have empathy for. Boys may have empathy for other boys but no empathy for girls. People may only have empathy for those within their families or their religious groups. The work is not simply to develop or increase children’s capacity for empathy, it’s to widen children’s circle of concern, to continually expand the range of people who children understand and value. It’s especially important to help children understand and value other children and adults who are different from them in terms of gender, culture, religion and other key characteristics.
Myth 3: Talking about whether children have empathy—or what level of empathy they have—is misleading in another sense. When children fail to appreciate others, the issue often is not that they lack a capacity for empathy. It’s that they face obstacles to experiencing empathy. Envy, competition, shame, depression and many other emotions can block empathy. It’s hard to know and value the perspectives of those we feel jealous toward or competitive with. Adults often talk about teens lacking empathy, but often the real issue is an emotion is blocking their ability to empathize. Many kinds of stereotypes and biases can prevent children from knowing and valuing others as well. Rather than simply “teaching” children empathy, we need to help them deal with these obstacles.
All this is not to say, of course, that we should not be devoting energy toward developing empathy in children. But we could be much clearer about what capacities exactly in children we want to develop and about the complex and nuanced process of helping them develop these capacities.
Richard Weissbourd is a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he directs the Human Development and Psychology Program, and a lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government. He is the author of the book The Parents We Mean to Be. His work focuses on children’s social and ethical development, on vulnerability and resilience in childhood and on effective schools and services for children. He has advised on the state and federal level on family policy and has developed several school and community interventions, primarily in Boston and Cambridge. He is a founder of ReadBoston and of WriteBoston, city-wide initiatives, led by Mayor Menino, intended to greatly improve children’s reading and writing abilities. He is also a founder of a new school in Dorchester, the Lee Academy, that begins with children at age three. He has written for numerous scholarly and popular publications, and is also the author of The Vulnerable Child, (Addison-Wesley, 1996).