Teaching Empathy in an Unkind World

On my long commute to work yesterday, I heard an interesting report on NPR. The foundation behind Sesame Street surveyed parents and teachers about kindness in children. You can read the report, but it boils down to this: parents and teachers agreed that kindness was more important than academic achievement, however, parents overwhelmingly chose manners as the most important part of kindness, while teachers chose empathy.

As a parent and a teacher, I am firmly in the empathy camp. Manners are a superficial show of niceness. Manners don’t require any real kindness at all. Are they important? Sure. But not as important as empathy. As the report points out, bullies are very good at using manners in front of adults.

Empathy is the ability to imagine what other people feel. After raising teenagers and teaching grades 7 through college level, I can assure you that empathy is seriously lacking in our culture, both in and out of school. Either that, or apathy has overruled it–maybe we can empathize with others, but we simply don’t care what they might be feeling.

My children are suffering because of this empathy/apathy problem. We have moved around a lot as I have tried to find decent work in a place where I could afford rent, so my children are too often the new kids. Six weeks into this school year, not one student has asked them to join them for lunch. My son is depressed because people continually interrupt him, talk over him, don’t ask him anything about himself. My daughter feels isolated and alone without her brother sitting next to her. I, of course, feel guilty for once again making them the new kids. But this happens everywhere. This happens even after two years in a particular school.

We are a family who cares about academics. We also care about other people. When my children complain about some other kid, I try to get them to think about where that kid is coming from. What are they thinking? This helps instill empathy in my children. But it is not the only reason my kids have empathy. They have empathy for others because they read books. They read literary fiction and creative nonfiction. They read short stories by unknown teenage authors on the internet. They read whatever they can get their hands on.

What the heck am I talking about? How can reading make a person kinder? Well, scientific studies have finally shown what English teachers have always known–reading literary fiction cultivates empathy. David Comer Kidd and Emanuelle Castana published their studies in Science back in 2013. (You can read a synopsis here.) These studies showed that the kind of book matters–popular fiction doesn’t cut it, as these novels are more about plot and entertainment. But literary fiction is often about the inner workings of a character’s mind. Readers are forced to try to understand another, walk in their shoes for a while. This is the basis of empathy, and the road to true kindness.

So how can we teach kindness? Read. Read to our kids, read ourselves, encourage our children to read the good stuff. Teachers have less and less time to really dig into good novels in school. Plot and who did what are easy to teach. Analysis of a character’s motivations is not. When students refuse to read at home (and why should they if their parents don’t?), teachers have precious little time in class to discuss the real meat of a novel. Add in standardized testing and a million other hoops to jump though…you see where I’m going with this.

Parents need to take up the slack, and encourage their children to read good books. Period.The dumbing down of America is not only hurting our reasoning abilities and public discourse; it is making us unkind.

Isaac Asimov put it this way:

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.”

I am throwing down the gauntlet. Your ignorance is not as good as my knowledge. Willful ignorance makes us unkind. Most of us would agree that learning to read is important, so why don’t we think that actually reading is important? If we agree that kindness is important, then let’s do something to help our children learn the empathy required to be truly kind. Let’s read with them.


need literary book suggestions? For contemporary authors, try Louise Erdrich, Barbara Kingsolver, David James Duncan, Sherman Alexie, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, George RR Martin, Neil Gaiman, and JK Rowling, to name a few. For a list of great classic literary fiction, see Goodreads.




Study referenced above:

Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind
SCIENCE18 OCT 2013 : 377-380


2 thoughts on “Teaching Empathy in an Unkind World

  1. Here, teachers are so buried under state requirements to turn every piece of literature into a set of “proofs” that even Romeo and Juliet is taught as if there were a “trial” and the kids have to find evidence of who is right and who is wrong. Does that make any sense? No. It’s also incredibly reductive, stripping thematic resonance right out of the process of teaching literature. With it goes insight, empathy, connectivity, and therefore also meaningful knowledge. I want to feel like this is a just a horrible accident and a fad that will pass, but it feels like a way to deliberately suck critical thinking out education altogether.

    1. Mostly (maybe?), I don’t think it is deliberate. Again, ignorance is the problem. The people who concoct these rules and curriculums just do not know what they are doing. Period. Lawmakers make rules, a group of cherrypicked teachers and administrators make curriculum guidelines, somebody says hell yes, that’s a good plan, we can EVALUATE that easily, and then the poor teachers have to play nice with the paperwork. The more regulation we have, the more paperwork hoops to jump through, the less we can truly educate.

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