Is it possible to teach our children to be caring and compassionate, or is empathy innate – you either have it or you don’t?
Mary Gordon, a recent Order of Canada recipient believes that babies are the key to introducing and reinforcing the ideas of compassion.
As the founder of Roots of Empathy, an innovative program that puts babies in classrooms, Mary Gordon believes that seeing helpless children build bonds with a loving parent over the course of a school year, lessens incidences of bullying.
With rashes of teenage “swarmings” near Skytrain stations and other suburban locations, and the beating death of Reena Virk still fresh in our minds, the newest generation of young adults seems slightly lost.
Of course, there are many teenagers and children who are caring, contributing members of society, but it only takes one or two anti-social ones to wreck havoc on a community.
Roots of Empathy is a simple concept. At the beginning of the school year, a mother (or father) brings a newborn baby to visit a classroom. The visits are repeated once a month until June. In between encounters with the baby, a trained instructor uses the baby’s interaction with his parent and the children as a springboard for discussions about caring, compassionate, kindness and other empathy-related topics.
In previous generations, children would have been far more likely to observe their mother or father with one of their ten younger brothers and sisters, but because of smaller families with two working parents, children can grow up without having even held another baby.
Kid #1 had “Bremmen” and his mom visit her classroom in grade two. As she related to me: “I learned that babies need a lot of help and they change fast.” What she probably wasn’t able to verbalize was the changes in behaviour that post-program research has revealed.
Dr. Kim Schonert-Reichl, an associate professor at UBC’s Department of Education, has been studying the results of Roots of Empathy, both here in Canada, as well as in New Zealand and, more recently, Taiwan.
Universally, children who go through the program emerge far less likely to bully and more likely to intervene if they observe the victimization of the fellow classmate, rather than passively observing.
Over 68,000 Canadian children in eight Canadian provinces have participated in a Roots of Empathy program. It is funded by private foundations, private corporations and the public education systems.
It isn’t the only solution to raising an emotionally healthy caring generation, but Roots of Empathy type programs are an excellent addition.
Mary Gordon and Kim Schonert-Reichl are both participating in the Dalai Lama’s Educating the Heart Dialogue in early September, when the Dalai Lama returns to open his new centre in Vancouver. More information can be found at www.dalailamacentre.com
Erin Airton is guest hosting for Sean Leslie on CKNW Saturday and Sunday 4-6pm.
As published August 3, 2006 in 24 Hours.