Baby Mei was curious, reaching out and touching the children she met in the class where she taught empathy. She was a serious baby, “a philosopher king”, says Mary Gordon, a baby who only smiled three times in the year she spent with the class.
The children fell in love with Mei. She taught them it was all right to be serious and, by extension, to be their own, true selves. For the children it was a powerful lesson in empathy.
Experiences like that are common in classes where Roots of Empathy is part of the curriculum. Mary Gordon launched the initiative in 1996. Her work as a child advocate and parenting expert led her to develop a program for teaching emotional literacy and empathy.
After witnessing the impacts of neglect, abuse and domestic violence, she saw the affected families all had one thing in common: The adults lacked empathy. She was determined to change that.
What started as a pilot program in some Toronto kindergarten classes is now offered internationally and has reached over 450,000 children. Backed by research affirming the effectiveness of its practices, Roots of Empathy, and Seeds of Empathy for preschoolers, just might have the answers to the questions being asked about how we can put the brakes on bullying.
Roots of Empathy has attracted a lot of media attention, and it is no wonder, with responses like these:
- From a participating parent: “I followed my baby’s development through the observations of children, I learned that kids are very capable of being caring, compassionate individuals, and the program reinforced for me the importance of exposing my boys to new and different things.”
- From a Roots of Empathy instructor: “[The teachers] say they have noticed in the students a reduced level of negative behaviour towards their peers. They hear the students talking amongst themselves about how to deal with a situation and objections to negative comments become more vocal as the classes progress.”
- From a student: “Roots of Empathy has taught us all how though we may look different on the outside, we are all the same on the inside and we are all special in our own unique ways.”
In his book, The Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin points out how critical empathy is to the future of our world:
Resolving the empathy/entropy paradox will likely be the critical test of our species’ ability to survive and flourish on Earth in the future. This will necessitate a fundamental rethinking of our philosophical, economic, and social models.
Teaching empathy to children is a good start. Roots of Empathy gives me hope.
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