Empathy Can Be Taught (and Should Be Learned)

by Bob Hughes on August 12, 2016

Bob Hughes · Small Actions · August 12, 2016

Pendulum in Action, WE Cycle, teaches empathy, small actionsDespite our living in a community-minded WE Cycle, more and more of us are narcissists. This self-centered tendency (or even pathology) has led to further alienation among people, even as social media allows for greater virtual engagement with each other. At the same time social media permits more vaunting of one’s own exploits and a look-at-me tendency that can lead to blocking out other points of view. This narcissism has negative effects on society, as people think less of what others feel or do and more about their own attitude or concerns, as if no one else matters.

But empathy is one of the greatest and most important of human attributes – it’s how we react to each other, work with each, co-exist with each other. And it’s not innate to us – we need to learn it. As children absorb the importance of sharing, children (and even adults) also learn to think of others before or in addition to themselves. Or to think in terms of how others see the world rather than they themselves. One of the greatest signs of moral progress, after all, is the realization that other people are as human as we are (tell that to the many politicians who vilify others).

So where do we learn empathy? From our peers, from our parents, and even, depending on where we live, from where we’re taught.

Denmark, a progressive country on many levels, actually teaches empathy as an essential component of childhood education.

It involves cake.

According to a story by Jessica Alexandra on Salon, adapted from her book The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids, teachers in Denmark stress how essential empathy is to one’s growing up to become a responsible adult.

Middle schools, for example, hold weekly sessions where students talk with each other about what’s on their mind, and how they feel – and one student each week is responsible for either bringing in a cake the child has baked (or bought). The cake is referred to as the Class-Hour Cake, for that specific period of the week when empathy is encouraged.

“The purpose is for all the students to come together in a comfortable setting to talk about any problems they may be having,” Alexandra writes. “Together, the class tries to find a solution. This could be an issue between two students or a group, or even something unrelated to school at all. If there are no problems to be discussed, then they simply come together to relax and hygge — or cozy around together.”

Jesper Vang, a middle school teacher at Tingkærskolen in Odense, Denmark, is quoted saying, in Alexandra’s article, “The important thing is that everyone is heard… to make sure that the children understand how the other feels, and see why the other feels as they do. This way, we come up with a solution together based on real listening and real understanding.”

Imagine that. Stressing understanding rather than confrontation!

This is a small, but significant, action on the part of these Danish teachers, and we could all profit from thinking of others’ point of view.

We may not have that specific class hour here, but each of us, perhaps, can take a moment, at least, to reflect on what we can do to understand how other people feel. The world is a better place with understanding, isn’t it?


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