Growing Empathy, Child by Child
You’re never too young to be a teacher. At least, that’s Mary Gordon‘s philosophy.
The founder of a program called “Roots of Empathy,” which brings babies into classrooms to teach children in grades K through 8, Gordon is an internationally recognized educator, social entrepreneur and parenting expert who has established empathy-based educational programs that are now public policy in Canada while also having been implemented around the world. Her Roots of Empathy program has proven particularly instrumental in bringing about dramatic changes in student behavior, helping them build core competencies that can generalize to the home environment as well as to the community.
Why bring babies into the classroom? “Roots of Empathy places babies in the role of teachers because babies love without borders or definition,” Gordon writes in her book about the program. “To the baby every child in the class is a new experience and she is ready to engage with all of them. In her worldview there are no popular children and no nasty children. What the baby does see, over and over again, are the children who are unhappy or troubled, and she usually reaches out to them. Children who have felt alienated or excluded are drawn into a circle of inclusion through the empathic contact made by the baby.”
Empathy, of course, is fundamental to solving the world’s most serious issues; and without the ability to extend it, there is no such thing as moral identity.
Gordon points to some of the bloodstains on the pages of human history, such as the Holocaust, to ask why some people were passive—or even active—participants, while others risked their lives to help victims and bring about change. “The difference lies in our capacity for empathy, our ability to identify with the feelings and perspectives of others,” she concludes. “If we cannot see the other person as human like us, we will not be able to identify with him. If we cannot put ourselves in his place, we will not recognize his experiences and feel what he feels. This failure of empathy at best leads to complicity and apathy; at worst, it leads to cruelty and violence.”
We like to think that nothing like the Holocaust could ever happen again. And perhaps it won’t if the next generation grows up understanding how to see others through a baby’s eyes.