Empathy: Are We Walking the Walk?

This morning on Twitter, Sam Patterson posted:

I responded, in the moment, with a quick tweet about the need for active listening and not just a passive head nod.

But then it got me thinking…

Why do we need to teach kids empathy? Research has shown that children develop empathy when about two years old. A two year old will see someone upset, and offer a teddy bear, or favorite blanket, to help console the person. Although the solution provided may not meet the needs of the upset person, for the two year old, it is a way to reach out and provide comfort.

Dr. Martin Hoffman, who researched empathy in children, said that it isn’t until around age 7 that children begin to really be able to “walk in someone’s shoes” and provide a response that is more appropriate to the situation. because they are learning how to see a situation from someone else’s point of view.

It’s in adolescence, Hoffman explains, that children can start thinking abstractly enough to understand the plight of others, such as homeless or or oppressed. Hoffman labels this stage comprehensive empathy and explains that it is at this point that children are first able to understand how the interplay of life’s experiences may color attitudes, feelings, and behaviors.

Ask (most) any parent or educator and they will tell you that empathy is an important trait for children to possess. “Of course we want our kids to care for others. How silly of you to ask!” wouldn’t be an unheard of response. And yet, research conducted at Harvard University showed that, while 96 percent of parents say they want to raise ethical, caring children, and cite the development of moral character as “very important, if not essential,” 80 percent of the youths surveyed reported that their parents “are more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others.” Sadly, the percentages were no different when students were asked what topped teacher concerns. Surveyed students were three times as likely to agree as disagree with the statement “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my class than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”

Why is there such a huge disconnect between the traits we think we value, and the values our children are actually being provided?

Could it be because the messages we send are stronger than the words we say?

When students see signs like the ones above that scream “I don’t care what your issues are, just do your work,” we are stripping the empathy away.

When we force compliance  on meaningless assignments in our quest for higher test scores, we are stripping the empathy away.

When we send students to the principal’s office without hearing “their side” of what happened, we are stripping the empathy away.

And when we hear a student speak, but don’t listen to what they’re saying, we are stripping the empathy away.

justice-scalia-quotes-on-religion-best-ideas-social-issues-international-day-for-compassion-and-empathy-only-go-so-farSo why do we need to teach students empathy? Because adults are the reason they are losing it in the first place.

Need tips on how to build empathy? via Teaching empathy: Evidence-based tips . Have others? Please share them below.


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5 Comments on “Empathy: Are We Walking the Walk?

  1. Wow! This is really food for thought, and a little heartbreaking. Excellent insight into the reasons and importance of focusing on empathy in the classroom. Thank you for the post!


    • Thanks, Dana. I appreciate your comment. I think empathy is the key to our future, and we need to do everything we can to make sure our students develop that skill.


  2. Laura, this post is so thought-provoking! I’m often faced with situations as a TOSA where I observe interactions between teachers and students that leave me reeling. Also, as a parent of 2 school-aged boys I often hear my boys’ side of situations where they feel a school adult was ‘mean’ or didn’t hear their side of the story. Of course I know that I’m seeing a snapshot in time or hearing one side to a story but in these instances I can see how, as adults, we are stripping empathy from children and certainly not modeling it. It reminds me, as an educator and a mom, to do better. Thanks for this powerful post!


    • Thank you so much for the comment (not sure why your post went into Spam!). It can be so hard to be an observer of less-than-stellar interactions with students. I know we all have those moments. My daughters have seen me lose my mind more than once, I am sad to say. But given the fact that there have already been 18 school shootings this year, we have all got to find a way to do better, to BE better. It’s a crisis of epic proportions. Empathy has got to become a focus for all of us, every day, with everyone.


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