Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Power of Empathy

Empathy is a pretty powerful thing and is essential for us to function responsibly in today's society.   Empathy is directly related to "theory of mind" which is the capacity to take on another person's perspective.  Without this theory of mind, we could never truly be empathic to another's plight.  Children don't have theory of mind until about 4 years of age, so we can't expect them to understand or relate to another child's or person's feelings until then.  Yet, we can definitely be empathic to our own children's experiences and feelings and also model empathy for them.  In fact, the ability of children to embody different characters in play is one of the first steps in developing theory of mind and empathy.

Just as I am pondering this concept and getting ready to give a presentation on empathy to some fellow teachers at UIC in January, I come across this article in the Chicago Tribune.  It discusses how today's teens are generally more tolerant of others, but less empathic.  Take a read and let me know your thoughts.  If this is true, we have some work to do as teachers and parents.

Most tolerant, but desensitized? Today's teens present a thorny contradiction.


  1. Interesting article, but I'm not sure I quite understand where the author was going with it. On one hand, if being "mean" itself is cool, well maybe that's an issue, but wasn't being mean always sort of cool? Bullies have always been more feared than ostracized. the meanest girl in my high school now has 733 friend on facebook (my biggest act of rebellion is not being one of them). most of whom still probably live in fear of her.

    And then there's this comment - "When you get kids actually in classes talking about race," he added, "what you find is that they themselves aren't talking about it. You're having the first conversation about it with them. We end up having to do a lot of unpacking." Which sort of confused me. I don't really understand what "unpacking" he's referring to. Is the author implying that under the surface of tolerance there's a problem or is he saying that nobody talks about race because nobody cares about race? Because not caring about race really isn't the same as being tolerant, it just means that the whole issue never crossed your mind. Which isn't that crazy when you think about it - for our grandparents, wasn't there a HUGE difference between someone who was irish and someone who was italian? And when we were growing up, didn't such prejudices seem inane? So maybe for our kids, race issues seem inane. Though I have heard (which the article doesn't address) that while kids today don't really care about race they DO care about socio-economic distinctions. Basically, it doesn't matter what color you are, but if your bag is a fake, then high school is not going to be fun for you.

  2. I totally see your point. I guess, with regards to race, if our kids have moved beyond tolerance and into the realm of inaneness - fine. I do wonder about the tolerance of cultural differences. It really amazed me how many people in our generation and our parents' lack cultural tolerance. I think this really came out in the whole NYC "Mosque" debacle. But, I have now digressed into political opining which probably isn't appropriate on the blog about play. :)
    The empathy piece completely scared me, though. Yes, kids have always been mean. But I guess I like to think that when the mean kids grew up out of the popularity contest of high school that they realized their actions actually hurt people. (I know that this isn't true for everyone, and I also realize that I have a very sunny, idealistic perspective on a lot of things.) But, there's no denying that social networking and texting takes the emotionality out of relationships. It makes it very easy to be mean because you never have to see the reaction of the other person - which makes me think that kids who have capacity for empathy may actually take to bullying since they never have to see the result in someone's eyes.
    Btw, my mind is spinning on who the meanest girl in our high school was... I wonder if I'm "friends" with her.