There are different ways of experiencing life events vicariously. One way to do it is by reading books. One might have never actually seen an umbrella that can make heads turn, but we do get glimpses of it through Ruskin Bond’s The Blue Umbrella, where Binya the little village girl falls in love with a pretty umbrella. Listening to stories of people, places and things or even watching plays can help us gain a peek into what someone is thinking, seeing or even tasting, but how can one be sure that we are equally taking part in what someone is feeling. The key to truly feeling heard or being understood is to be empathized with.
Empathy simply put means that one person feels the same way another person is feeling. Empathy is very often confused with sympathy, which means feeling sad for someone else. Imagine a student who is afraid of public speaking. There are some children in class who might feel sad for their peer. However, there are others who are able to experience the same emotions that their nervous friend is feeling – embarrassed, fearful and even physically sick. Empathy is what makes humans different. The ability to feel what another is feeling and communicating that understanding. Hence, a child might tell the student who is afraid of public speaking that ‘I know how the palms get cold and sweaty when I am nervous before speaking in front of the class.’ Empathy is what is needed to make a new child in class feel welcome, it is what doctors need to communicate with their patients who are facing a difficult or even a happy diagnosis. It’s what people need to have to prevent hurting animals. It is what the leaders of our world need when they make decisions that affect people who might be different from them and it is what each one of us needs in order to have fulfilling relationships with others.
Experiencing something tangible can be an objective experience for most of us – a traffic light turning green, hearing a phone beeping or even touching something cold or hot. However, we can’t be confident that someone else feels the emotions in as objective a manner. How a person emotes or even experiences the same emotion is dependent on a number of factors like the person’s upbringing, mental make up and prior experiences with such emotions. If a traffic light has turned green, it might bring a feeling of relief in someone who is in a hurry to get to some place, or annoyance in someone who was probably trying to get a bite of their breakfast behind the wheel. Emotions towards the same event therefore can be vastly different for different people. Why is it important to then be empathetic? Why do teachers, leaders, doctors and all of us need to feel what our students, followers, patients and others are feeling?
When one is being empathized with, it creates a feeling of being understood. This emotional support helps in raising self-esteem. One of the most important reasons a person might share a challenging incident is in order not to feel alone. Symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a syndrome that affects people who have experienced extremely stressful conditions, occurs less in those who have gone through a crisis in a group as opposed to going through it alone. Hence, support groups prove valuable for people facing similar challenging situations. When one feels understood, the resultant rise in morale helps the person undergoing the challenging situation become more emotionally tenacious preventing downfall. They might also be more open to emulating the ways people experiencing similar emotions have used to handle these situations.
Children are wired for empathy. When infants see another infant cry, they start crying too. Mitali Parekh, a columnist and certified canine behaviourist and dog trainer says, “Children naturally show empathy towards their dolls, toys and animals. Children who don’t show empathy raise a red flag.” Children playing with toy trucks, for example, explain what the truck is going through while navigating difficult terrain through voiceovers. These are signs that children can acquire a different perspective, even if it is of an inanimate object!
Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal, chef, food historian and teacher, says, “Not every community or culture is the same and it is important for us to understand different cultures and communities to co exist with respect for each other. It makes us sensitive towards the practices of other cultures and culinary practices, even if they may be very different from us. I think, empathy allows kids to understand social behaviour.” Empathy can also prevent bullying. Children who understand how others feel and their role in making others feel a certain way, are more likely to not torment others and to stand up for those who are being victimized. However, just like any other skill, one might lose the ability to empathize if one does not use it. And the good news is, the more it is used, the better one gets at using it.
As children are capable of empathizing from a very young age it makes sense to nurture empathy in children in the early years. Shruti Mathur, a teacher of the primary grades in The Shri Ram School, Delhi, uses circle time to explore emotions. During the morning meetings, Shruti and her co-teachers act out situations that they have observed in the classroom. Very often new children in class feel shy and left out and there might be conflicts in class among students, which she explores through conversations. Age appropriate and open-ended questions support children in discovering how others might feel leading them to treat others the way they would like to be treated. “There is a board in class where students write messages appreciating a good deed that someone else has done for them. This helps students recognize feelings and what triggers them.”
Shruti has also recommended that parents affirm children at home especially when they have done something to help out around the house. This helps children realize how their actions affect someone else, which is a crucial step towards empathy. Making Caring Common (MCC), an organization that advocates using research-based tips to help parents raise caring children, backs what Shruti says. It is beneficial to make caring for others a priority and set high ethical expectations. Researchers at MCC also suggest that parents provide children an opportunity to practice empathy, which could take the form of asking the child questions about how others might have felt during situations and events.
Nisha Bhimaiah, a trainer for life skills, behaviour and theatre for children, has outlined a process to develop empathy in children. The entire method consists of five stages which starts with children recognizing emotional vocabulary and distinguishing between how an incident, or a story makes them feel. Initially, children are unable to separate their thoughts from their feelings, which with dogged focus from Nisha, gradually children are able to do. In the second stage, children try and incorporate the newly acquired emotional vocabulary in their every day conversations. Children become more aware of their emotions, although they might not label them correctly. In the next stage, children focus on the cues that bodily sensations provide regarding the emotions they are feeling. At this point, children notice that emotions are triggered instinctively. Students move on to reflecting the importance of listening as necessary for empathizing followed by the final step which is experiencing empathy. Children mirror the facial expressions of others as a way of experiencing similar emotions. Nisha uses varied material to help evoke emotions in children which is a practice suggested by researchers from MCC. Exposing children to situations faced by people who are different from them can help them gain an insight into very different lives thus priming them for empathy.
Trinjhna Khattar, of Institute for Exceptional Children, which conducts counselling and life skills sessions for children, uses several methods to develop empathy in students. One method that has proven effective according to her is role-plays, which expects students to literally take on the role of another person. Role-plays are followed by forum theatre – a participatory method of drama and conflict resolution where members from the audience take on the role of the actors and express their point of view. Forum theatre allows students to empathize with others and also communicate the empathy to them. “It works especially powerfully when students share challenges that they face in real life,” says Trinjhna. A special education teacher in Mumbai, shares that her students need to be taught to empathize too as much as others need to empathize with them. She notices that children with intellectual disabilities will hit, hurt or tease their classmates, as they are unable to think through the consequences. Hence, her role is to use dramatization or even extensive questioning to help the child reflect on someone else’s emotions. She also uses picture books to explore how characters in a story might feel in certain situations. Rushina, while teaching participants and children about food always includes information on cultures, food and practices of people from all over the world to create respect among learners regarding people who are different from them. Mitali, while conducting sessions for young students says, “Empathetic children are able to observe more. Instead of projecting their feelings, they tend to guess what the animal feels. They like to talk and know more about them. They don’t just run to hug or squish them – that is generally a sign that they see the animal as a toy.” Mitali uses the same techniques to help children build empathy towards a dog that someone might use to build children’s empathy towards other people. She emphasizes sameness. She says, “Helping children observe animals and pointing out similarities between animals and humans is key. Dogs, just like humans, feel thirsty, lazy and sleepy in summer.” While MCC suggests that parents need to model empathy to children, Mitali states that empathetic children help build empathy in parents.
A fictional show on Netflix named ‘13 Reasons Why’ has been taking the western world by storm. A young girl who commits suicide because of problems in high school is the central plot of the show. Although we might dismiss the show as lacking contextual relevance to India, we need to remember that a huge percentage of our students are online on social media possibly facing abuse or tormenting others. Students are being bullied and are going through stress, which they might not feel adequately equipped to handle. It is in the face of these challenges that we need to begin fostering empathy. Can we pause and consider someone else’s feelings before we say or do something in real life or online?
Dr. Michele Borba, author of Unselfie a book that helps parents raise empathetic children in the age of social media which only focuses on ‘me’ suggests that there is a need to create an emotional literacy in students. Creating a caring identity of a child is more beneficial than just focusing on him/her doing good work. A child who believes that he is a caring person will start orienting himself towards the feelings of others. Four steps are used to help develop empathetic children, summarized as CARE: call out uncaring behaviour, assess how uncaring behaviour affects others, repair the damage done by hurtful behaviours and express disappointment at the exhibition of uncaring behaviour. Dr Borba states that there is a need to teach empathy to children in schools and also to assess the messages that we give students. Is being academically successful more important than helping a struggling peer in class?
It is natural to experience empathy erosion, given the number of pressing problems that we are exposed to in the world today. However, we need to be careful that being resilient should not be confused with our children turning emotionally numb.
The author works at Mantra For Change, a social enterprise that aims to transform schools in Bangalore. She has been an education consultant for close to five years and has been writing, albeit privately, for a decade. She can be reached at email@example.com.