Empathy Counts, Character Counts, But Both Seem in Short Supply in America


Have no doubt: Parenting matters, and if you aim to raise decent, empathetic kids who put doing and saying the right thing above expediency, start with the Book of Matthew’s Golden Rule that reads, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them… ” Even the non-religious among us should be able to wrap their minds around that, and yet…

A little boy cried his heart out well into the night after he’d learned that he hadn’t been invited to one of his “best” friend’s birthday parties. About that, the birthday boy’s mother told his dad, “Well, maybe next year he’ll make the list.”

Then there’s the dad who, after his kid’s team struck out, told him within earshot of several team members and their parents, “You’re the best, but you can’t be expected to carry the team all the time!” That same boy invited only the best players on his team over to celebrate their having made the playoffs. Apples and trees…

So much for empathy, that know-it-when-you-see-it capacity to figure out how someone else is feeling and then acting accordingly. Ditto, it seems, for kindness and character. No wonder, then, that along with all the curriculum changes and other demands already in place, schools now have to step in and teach social-emotional skills.

And try they will. Indeed, currently eight large, mostly urban school districts are participating in an initiative spanning a number of years whereby researchers study their schools’ social-emotional learning programs. These, explains Education Week‘s Evie Blad, “blend evidence-based classroom curriculum with school climate improvements and efforts to infuse social and emotional concepts into the teaching of traditional subjects like history.”

Along such lines, one big change in Cleveland’s schools nowadays, for instance, is that in-school suspension rooms are now called “planning centers,” a place where kids who act up talk with teachers to help them work through their problematic or disruptive behavior. A definite change in disciplinary policy.

At the same time, an Education Week Research Center poll found that 60.5% of responding administrators said their schools’ students have those desired social-emotional skills; however, just 46.5% of the responding teachers agreed, representing a bit of a disconnect. Meanwhile, 49.9% said their schools pay “about the right amount of attention” to those skills. Does that mean schools should be doing a better job instilling these attributes? How about parents?

On top of all this, since 2004, every January–yes, I’m a bit late on that score-No Name-Calling Week is recognized. Defined as “an annual week of educational and creative activities aimed at ending name-calling, bullying and harassment,” it’s designed to celebrate kindness in our schools, complete with online lesson plans. This, of course, simply underscores the need for instilling the Golden Rule right from the get-go.

Apparently, we adults could use some social-emotional training, too, starting with our current crop of politicians and media folks. Remember when Vice President Joe Biden likened Tea Party Republicans to terrorists? How about when New York Times op-ed columnist Joe Nocera wrote, “… These last few months, much of the country has watched in horror as the Tea Party Republicans have waged jihad on the American people.” Similarly, writing for the same newspaper, Thomas Friedman described those same Tea Partiers as “the GOP’s Hezbollah faction.”

Such rhetoric seems to have no end nowadays. Take, for example, that after the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Gifford and her constituents, David Fitzsimmons, a cartoonist for the (Tucson) Arizona Daily Star, blamed the right in Arizona for “stoking the fire of heated anger and rage” and “making the attack inevitable.”

Then there’s our “role model” Hollywood folk emulated by so many, kids and adults, alike. Talk about mean. Take, for instance, beloved Sandra Bullock. While walking the red carpet one evening, a reporter asked what designer she was wearing, a question asked of most divas. Her response for all to hear: “How could you ask such a stupid question?”

For another Hollywood example, take the renowned Charlie Sheen who, in a Tweet, compared Rihanna to “84 interminable seconds of drinking Drano.”

About such goings-on, author Daniel H. Pink reminds us that, “Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.”

Yes, and it begins at home…


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