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 Woman reading Essential Reads

» A Culture that Engages Every Family, Steven M. Constantino, Ed.D.

» How to Revitalize Your School-Parent Compact, Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D.

» How Do You Know if You're Really Open to Partnership, Anne Henderson & Karen Mapp

»PTA--Gateway to Engagement, Advocacy, and Access, Meryl Ain, Ed.D.

» The Power of Asking-Instead of Telling, Jody McVittie, M.D.

» Empathy in Action, Rick Ackerly, Ed.M.

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Empathy in Action

By Rick Ackerly, Ed.M.

Say, "Hey, would you help me..." to children, and you will usually get an enthusiastic, "Sure."

If you get a negative reaction, I can think of several possible causes off the top of my head:

  • childrenIt feels imposed rather than offered as an opportunity.
  • It's a job you hate and, therefore, you are actually taking advantage of them.
  • They feel singled out, and not for greatness.
  • They need a little seducing.
  • You might have caught them at a bad time, in which case you might consider saying something like, "Would there be a better time for you?" (Next time you will be more sensitive to the mission they are on.)
  • You have already made the mistake of giving the lecture on social obligations, and said something stupid like: "You kids! All you ever want is rights. You have to learn that for every right there is a responsibility." Maybe, they sense that your request was not really in the free will department, but more in the obedience department.
  • ...and of course there may be other causes.

Beth, a kindergarten teacher at one of my schools, once said: "I see any unused ability in my classroom as an incipient behavior problem," and she understood empathy to be a natural ability in all children.

Daily in the blogosphere I read that parents should teach children empathy. No, we shouldn't. We should make sure that our homes are hotbeds of empathy in action. In that context there will be teachable moments, of course-our chance to teach some social skills and do some coaching in emotional control. Under the right circumstances, children actually welcome coaching that will improve their repertoire of skills for harmonizing self and other. Scolding backfires because they are internally motivated to know how to do it on their own.

All children have empathy. As Beth and all other good educators know, it is one of their greatest abilities, and the origin of some of their greatest passions. Their brains are designed to know how others feel. They are wired with mirror neurons; when someone else is hurt, they feel it. By eighteen months they know that another person might want something different from what they want, and are inclined to give them what they want, rather than what they would choose for themselves.

When a small child investigates an object, one of the moves he always makes is to hold it out to the adult. This is our chance to play the game of give and take. Take it. Say "Thank you, for the fork." Give it back. As soon as they can talk, they will be saying "Thank you."

In our culture this is counter-intuitive. So steeped are we in seeing the individual as self-determining, self-serving, and self-maximizing, that we tend to see children as selfish. But children know what many adults in our culture often forget: the happiness of others is inextricably connected to our own. By the time children walk in the door of a kindergarten classroom they have been practicing the art of harmonizing their own needs, wants and interests with those of others for about 40,000 hours. Talk about an ability! And Beth always counted on it. Her students were always doing things for her, doing things for others, serving the community. Imagine the ambiance.

Self-centered doesn't have to mean selfish. Some of the happiest children I have seen over the years are those engaged in real work that matters to someone else. Kids are often honored to be asked to take on a grown-up responsibility. My three-year-old grandson's favorite line is, "I like to work."

I find that I am actually in favor of child labor, and so are children under the right circumstances. They want to matter; they want to make a difference; they want to please. They are eager to be admitted into the adult world of work, unless of course the adult understanding of work is distasteful and to be avoided, in which case...duh.

Adults think they are sending children to school (as if to the sweat shops) to learn the three R's and to climb the ladder of success. Children want to go to school to be with other children, to make friends...and also to learn stuff.  When we honor the genius in children, we find there is plenty of room for a meeting of these two minds.

Photo Credit: CeeKay

Posted on April 3, 2012 by Rick Ackerly, Ed.M.

Rick Ackerly is a nationally recognized educator and speaker with forty-five years of experience working in schools. He has served as headmaster of four independent schools, and he speaks to parent and school groups across the country and presents at numerous education conferences. Rick lives in Decatur, Illinois. Visit his blog, The Genius in Children, or follow him on Twitter.

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Permalink   Comments (4)   Send to a Friend

Tags: *Parent Engagement at Home , Character Development, Communicating, Empathy, Learning environment, Parents as teachers, Social Skills

Posted April 21, 2012 by rick ackerly
Thank you, Sally. Link to your work? 

Posted April 21, 2012 by Sally Kolbe
This is an excellent article. I work a lot with developing social skills with kids, and found this both informative &especially insightful. Thank you. 

Posted April 3, 2012 by rick ackerly
Thank you, Kathy. Essential reading. 

Posted April 3, 2012 by Kathy Slattengren
The book by Dr. Bruce Perry, Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential - and Endangered, reviews a number of tragic cases where a child's empathy didn't develop. He states "The gifts of our biology are a potential, not a guarantee. As with so many other human potentials present at birth, empathy and love require specific experiences to develop."  


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