I’m hearing a lot these days about how we need to start ‘teaching empathy’ in our schools. How, if only people learned how to be empathetic, our society would be a better place to live. I agree. What I don’t agree with, however, is the notion that empathy can be taught in school as a distinct, and designated, part of the curriculum. What we really need is a change in our culture.
We don’t have to start teaching empathy – we have to stop teaching indifference and disdain. That lesson cannot be taught just by teachers in formal educational settings. It needs to be taught to children by everyone around them from the day they are born. We need a cultural shift that understand, demands, expects, and rewards, kindness. I don’t believe it can be taught merely as a set of classroom lessons – though, for sure, it can be reinforced through fun exercises, role-plays etc. – I believe it needs to be modeled by showing children what empathy looks like.
Part of empathy is good manners, and children learn this best by having it modeled for them. To teach my children how to be be polite, I modeled it for them. Rather than the performative ‘Say thank you!’ (which I believe parents and carers say to show other adults how good they are at ‘teaching manners’), I said ‘thank you’ at the appropriate times when my children were little. Like all children, mine were eager to emulate the behaviour modeled for them. So they quickly learned – without having to told – when to say ‘thank you’ as well as ‘please’, ‘may I?’, ‘sorry’ etc. and how to behave in a way that was considerate towards others.
We need to realise that most people are empathetic – some more than others, of course – and we have to nurture and nourish that. We have to model it. At the moment, we don’t: We model bullying, disrespect, unkindness, and disdain. These traits and practices are what we reward – and that is why our levels of bullying, sexual assault, and harassment are epidemic. It’s why our populations are suffering mental ill-health in such large numbers, and why we have so many people self-harming, attempting, and dying by, suicide. It’s why conversations about consent and male entitlement are suddenly ‘fashionable’ in media at the moment.
I would argue that unkindness and lack of empathy is what we’re teaching our children – because our default is to be empathetic. We are born that way – it’s our instinctive, default position because it’s part of how we connect with other people, and as human beings, we crave, and seek, nothing more than connection with others. It’s not what we need to learn, it’s what we need to unlearn, that we should focus on.