Teaching Empathy in Baby Steps

A baby can melt our hearts and put a smile on our face in an instant. With just a bit more time, that baby can teach us one of the most important and complex things we ever learn: emotional literacy.

Normally, explaining complicated concepts requires the skill and experience of a trained teacher. But it’s precisely a baby’s inability to explain that makes them the perfect ones to teach empathy. And that’s exactly what the babies involved in The Roots of Empathy (ROE) program do when they make their monthly visits to some of Canada’s grade schools.

Along with their parents and a trained instructor, the babies help the students to better understand human feelings and frustrations and to empathize with other, littler humans as they struggle to learn, grow and communicate.

Because infants can’t articulate how they are feeling, students are encouraged to suggest reasons why the infant might be upset, angry, or happy and then to develop appropriate responses. The loving parent’s response to the baby serves as an example for reaching out and demonstrating caring.

“The program taught me that everybody has different feelings and to always respect everyone's individuality," said one 13 year-old student.
Trained instructors also work with the students to help them recognize the baby's needs and emotions. They lead exercises that expand the students' emotional vocabulary and allow them to explore their own feelings.

“The program taught me that everybody has different feelings and to always respect everyone's individuality," said one 13 year-old student.
“The idea is to create a more caring society, from the classroom out," said ROE founder and president Mary Gordon.

While getting a big dose of cuteness makes things fun for the students, the goal of the program is much more serious: addressing the underlying causes of bullying and violence in schools and among adults too.

And it’s working. Children from the ROE program score better on all measures that assess emotional understanding, according to a study. Children who had been through the ROE program were able to spontaneously generate more explanations about why a baby might cry, and could devise more emotional strategies for how to respond to the baby's distress.

Gordon says she targets empathy because she believes it encompasses all the other attributes that parents hope to instill in their children such as honesty and integrity. A child who has a true sense of how others feel and how their actions affect others is more likely to act with honesty and caring. Empathy, in Gordon's opinion, is the key to all the other virtues.

In the long term, Gordon hopes the students who are benefiting from her program now will grow up to be parents who demonstrate and teach empathy to the next generation.

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