The Importance of Teaching Empathy In Raising Children: An Interview with Mary Gordon

Mary Gordon

Written by: Lianne Castelino

Published: Feb 12, 2021

The ability to sense how someone is feeling and to imagine what it might be like to walk in their shoes even for a moment, are examples of empathy in action.

This emotional understanding and connection to the feelings of others as well as oneself has been the foundation of the Canadian organization, Roots of Empathy, which turns 25 in 2021.

Children playing: teaching empathy to children

Courtesy: Roots of Empathy

Founded by Mary Gordon, a mom of two, grandmother of four, teacher, author and award-winning social entrepreneur, the organization’s work has been described as groundbreaking.

In a podcast interview with Lianne Castelino of Where Parents, Gordon, describes the importance of emotional literacy for both children and adults, and offers tips on how parents support teaching empathy in raising children.

Rooted in science, Roots of Empathy is a classroom-based program for children between 5 to 13 years of age.

Certified instructors help children pinpoint and better understand their own feelings, as well as recognize the emotions of those around them.

This understanding is achieved through experiential learning, specifically by having a parent and infant serve as the key teaching resources. Children learn to observe the baby’s development over time, in order to gain insight into how the baby may be feeling.

Introduced in Canada in 1996, the Roots of Empathy program is taught in more than a dozen countries, impacting more than one million children globally.

A study conducted in 2011 by Schonert-Reichl et al., about the Roots of Empathy program found, “…the results of this study provide empirical evidence that a relatively easy-to-implement universal classroom-based intervention that does not focus exclusively on disturbed or atypical children substantially improves children’s cooperative and kind behavior to one another and decreases their aggression.”

According to the Roots of Empathy website, other key research findings include:
“An increase in social and emotional competencies
An increase in prosocial behaviours (such as sharing, helping and including).
A decrease in aggressive behaviours, including bullying
Greater acceptance towards their peers and an increased perception of a caring and supportive classroom environment.
An increase in knowledge of infant development ”

Listen to the Where Parents Talk podcast interview with Mary Gordon, Founder, Roots of Empathy:

Click for video transcription

Welcome to the Where Parents Talk podcast. My name is Lianne Castelino. Today we welcome a mom of two, a grandmother for an educator, author and social entrepreneur. Mary Gordon is the founder of Roots of Empathy, which began in Canada in 1996. It provides empathy-focused instruction to children from three years old to grade eight, as well as their parents. It has grown to be offered in more than a dozen countries impacting more than a million children. Mary Gordon, it’s so great to have you.

Thank you, Lianne, nice to be speaking with you again.

As a starting point, let me ask you, why should teaching empathy be on a parent’s radar?

I think the thing is because parents are the number one fostering people for the quality of empathy and empathy is the ultimate human trait in my books. And if we want our children to be anything, we need them to be empathic. It will ensure their mental health, it will support them in everything. And the fact that my thesis is that empathy develops through the loving relationship between parent and child definitely has to be on the parents hitlist.

Let me ask you, why is empathy important to you? How would you explain it to somebody? Well, empathy is the quality that allows us to connect with other people. And let me break it down for you. When I say empathy. I’m not just speaking about cognitive empathy, which is perspective taking. And that typically is how empathy is understood.
Our definition of empathy includes affective empathy, which is really the emotions. So in Roots of Empathy, when we speak of the concept of empathy, we’re talking about being able to understand how other people feel, but also being able to feel with them. And there’s a very big difference in that feeling with them. That’s where the action comes from.

So when you started this some 25 years ago, there must have been a lack of empathy in the world for you to go down this road. Is that what was the catalyst for you?

Yes, the specific catalyst was that I had been involved with families who were vulnerable because they were dealing with issues of either child abuse or domestic violence. And
what I realized in having the privilege of being able to work with those families was that the common denominator and all of that pain was the absence of empathy, that the people who were doing things that were against the law and against humanity really, were not wicked on salvageable people, but they were people who lacked empathy. And that, that sort of mind- blowing realization, that I always look for patterns and everything I do in life was the pattern here. What can I understand? What can I learn? What can we change? That was a pattern that I recognized. And so I thought, okay, if you’re going to break cycles of violence, you have to be able to develop empathy, and how do you develop empathy. And my other aha moment that resulted in a lot of very generous recognition, which has helped me all along, develop Roots of Empathy was the idea that empathy develops through the loving relationship of a parent and a baby. And you can’t give what you don’t have. So that it was not about blaming or shaming parents. It was about how can we help parents understand that how you interact with your baby, is how they feel loved, and supported or not. So very on early on, I realized through working with families who were struggling, that we really could change the next generation, if these children had an opportunity to develop empathy.

Where would you say that you are on that 25 years into this groundbreaking programming?

Well, the good news is we’ve had a ton of research, we’re probably one of the most researched children’s programs, certainly in Canada, because we work with a parent and a baby who you know that we bring into a classroom that is when we’re in classrooms, and it sounds all together to cute.

So, I felt that what I am creating posing is that you can foster empathy by coaching children to observe a little baby’s behavior, and read the baby’s emotional cues. And try and see what happens between the parent and the baby how the parent loves the baby encourages the baby redirects the baby, that if all of that looks too adorable, I wanted to have scientific evidence that we were making a difference, because it’s one thing to claim you’re doing something. It’s another thing to prove, from scientists in, you know, university, people in universities who do formal studies that are, you know, randomized longitudinal studies, which are the most rigorous sort to prove that you’re doing what you’re doing. And you say, how are we doing? Well, we’re doing pretty well, we’ve got peer-reviewed published research on three continents. So it’s not just a matter of culture, it’s not a language issue.

It’s not an age issue. They have done studies on children at all ages for Roots of Empathy. And the findings are consistent that having the Roots of Empathy experience for a full year reduces children’s aggression, and bullying and violence, and that it increases children’s pro social behaviors. And that includes caring, helping kindness, including inclusion is a big one.
So that, you know, we’ve worked with well, more than a million children. So, we know that we have those outcomes with those children. And we laterally know that those children influence their families, their friends, their community, and that the impact of roots of empathy is lasting. And that’s something that you rarely get in a school-based program.

So it’s we don’t have evidence of the of the spread of the children who have had the program. But we have lots of anecdotal, which is nice to add along to the scientific study. So we’re very happy with the outcomes.

It’s interesting. I’m wondering, what has struck you about any of the findings that you mentioned, as it relates to parents themselves?

Well, the whole program really is, is centered around the power, the positive power of the attachment relationship. And the parents who volunteer as a volunteer family and roots of empathy, and they visit with one classroom of children over the school year. And they’re supported by the roots of empathy instructor who’s not actually the classroom teacher, but as a separate instructor who has changed we here who’s trained rather, we hear from the instructors, who are parents, that the one thing they regret is that they didn’t have roots of empathy before they had children. And the one thing we hear from the parents who volunteer with their baby, is what an influence it has been a positive influence on their parenting because they hadn’t realized what a mass it’s kind of scary really, what an incredible influence they have on their baby. We do tell parents that, you know, each baby comes from a different basket and you don’t get the basket you ordered.

But and that baby’s temperament traits are inherited, that they’re not something you train or coach. And when I say temperament traits, I mean things like intensity, perseverance, activity level, mood, all of the things that make parenting difficult are a delight.

So, it’s a very reassuring thing for parents to be involved with the parenting courses we offer which teach the concepts of temperament traits and how to parent through the lens of temperament traits. And, also the parents who volunteer with their baby. We all learn from them, that they are informed and positively encouraged by understanding the temperament traits that you know, if they have a baby who’s very easy to fit into routines, it’s a baby with high rhythmicity and immediately feel like a wonderful parent because everything works according to your plan. I’ve had that experience so I know what you’re talking about. Yes. Well, you had your three children. So, did you have any children who had low rhythmicity, who you could not convince to go to bed? Yes, I’ve had that as well. So, I see both sides of that. Definitely.

It’s a beautiful thing for Roots of Empathy to be in a position where we can say to parents, you know, stop judging and blaming yourself. If you have a baby that doesn’t sleep well to a routine, or if you have a very picky eater, or if you have a child who has multiple meltdowns, you’ve got a highly intense baby with low rhythmicity, or you’ve got a four-year old, who’s not got a character flaw, but has high intensity, it’s gonna serve them well in life. It’s just going to be challenging for you, though, it’s, you know, we have on our website, a whole program of videotapes explaining these different temperament traits, and we have 12 different short video tapes for parents and in sort of opening up discussions about parenting during COVID. You know, what are the things what, what is useful to understand about children’s play? What is useful to understand about their fears? What should we be thinking about talking to our children about racism, so all of these things are available, and I can’t tell you how much I value and extol the positive potential of parents to build a generation of children who will create a world that they’re worthy of.

Mary, I have to tell you, that is so wonderful to hear. Because if I, if we both look back to 1996, when you started this, there was no social media, the internet was still newish, you know, emails, all that stuff was still new to the to the average person. You know, cyber bullying didn’t exist. bullying, as we know it now, was not as much on our consciousness as it is now. Lots was different at that time. Now you’ve got all of those factors entering the equation. How does that impact your work? Does it dishearten you or embolden you in what you’re trying to communicate and teach people?

Well, I really like your choice of words embolden me, I would say, of the buffet you offered, that’s my choice, the word because in terms of advocating for messaging to the world, about what will be supportive of children, and what actions that we take with our policies, and our behaviors will or our parenting will help children have optimal development and happiness.
It is a different world, absolutely, from 96. And the bullying that you know, was of concern then is still of concern.

It’s just taken a more destructive bent because the internet is available on social media. So the children can be tortured at school, they can be tortured in the neighborhood, and now they can be tortured in their bedroom. So we’ve seen an increase in suicide. And we call these things out.
It’s easier for a parent of someone else’s doing the talking about it.

But the idea of growing up as a child, what are your challenges, there are different challenges. And I have to say that the essence of being a child has not changed. Children may speak in a more sophisticated way. They may have their own websites at 12. They may be doing all kinds of things that appear to be very sophisticated. So, their cognitive sophistication and their linguistic sophistication I completely agree with their emotional sophistication has not budged one iota.

There is nothing to indicate in any research studies that children are, are gaining emotional maturity any faster. So, they are just dealing with a bigger menu of things to stress them out. They need friendships, they need protection, they need to be able to be reassured that who they are as exactly who should it should be. They need all of the reassurances that they needed in 96. And in 1900, for that matter, the essence of our humanity has not changed. And yes, children are physically growing up earlier. So, children will experience adolescence, on average, six months earlier than they did as recently as 10 years ago. So those things are changing, but children’s emotional maturity, their experience in the world and their ability to process what’s going on emotionally, has not changed. So, I see there’s a much bigger cause for child advocacy here that we absolutely need to respect and make space for children’s voice, they all have voice, they just don’t often get a chance to use it in a constructive way. And our issue in roots of empathy is to make sure that children are becoming emotionally literate, because they certainly are becoming literate with technology and all of the other advances in science and
particularly with technology.

But I feel we do them a disservice if we don’t try and give them the first language of life, which is their emotions, the universal language is our emotions. And so, I just believe that we as a society, are tone deaf to our emotions. We’re emotionally illiterate, we’re probably the most literate society that has ever lived. But what is our progress with emotional literacy? And I think that the children that we work with, in roots of empathy, they are amazingly emotionally literate, they often help their families, we hear amazing stories of how they have been helpful at home in untold ways, they may not be helpful in tidying their room, they may not volunteer to do dishes, but they see things because of their experience with roots of empathy, that allow them to say things like that, are you worried? Well, why would you think I’m worried Johnny? beak, and then the child will be able to read their emotional cues and tell them why. So we see amazing things, we had one just remarkable story of the little boy whose dad had had a stroke prematurely. And, you know, understandably, the dad was raging, that he couldn’t speak properly, he couldn’t move properly.

And he would have anger fits. And the boy, his son, who was in a great seven, eight class at the time, said to him, Dad, I think I know how you’re feeling. If I tell you, can you let me know. And he would tell his dad, you feel frustrated, because you can’t do this. And you used to be able to you don’t feel like a man anymore, you don’t feel like this, his dad cried. And he was able to hug his dad, because, you know, our gender expectations in society are very rigid and stiff and punishing for men, women do better. But here you have children who’ve become so emotionally literate and so empathic, that they are helping in the home in a in an extraordinary way.

It is such a powerful story that you share, Mary, and I mean, I just, you know, I think about how different the world could be if more and more people had access to learning about, as you say, their emotional literacy and learning to deal with their feelings. Let me ask you in 2021, as we sit here, where would you say that empathy resides overall in our social consciousness?

Well, if you look, to start at our consciousness in the media, the use of the term empathy is probably second to the use of the word resilience. Ford magazine said that resilience was the number one word used in the sheer, but they also referenced empathy. And I keep hearing about it, because people thought I discovered the term you know, that long ago, that we’ve been talking about it that, you know, when I started talking about empathy, people would giggle up their sleeves, particularly Americans, you know, that poor woman.

But now, empathy is not just considered a soft skill. I was just involved with an article about
the role of empathy and leadership in the corporate world. Well, there’s a whole huge area of research there on that. So, when you ask me, what is the sort of status of empathy in 2021?
I think people are very aware of it. I think a lot of times people give lip service to it, because it’s trending.

We have had a massive decrease in empathy. And this is research done on the in the United States. And it was done on university students over two decades. And it was the research was done a decade ago. And it was interesting because they looked at empathic concern and perspective taking, and in both cases, comparing over a 20-year span, university students in the United States had made losses in empathy between 40 and 50%. Now, that is alarming.
So, it doesn’t mean it applies everywhere. But, you know, in this world of social media that you referenced, we’re kind of global. Yes, we have our, there is a culture associated with Canada, which differs from our neighbour. And then there’s other cultures that people have that are based around maybe their religion or other things. But I would say there is a wonderful awareness of empathy. And as long as something is being discussed, there will be the chance for it to really be unpacked, you know.

When Bruce Perry, who’s a famous, famous psychiatrist in the United States, particularly when it comes to advocate to, really challenges within childhood and water are the areas where children suffer adversity, he was the one who was called in to the Jonestown slaughter, he was the one who was, you know, always pulled into the disasters. He was writing a book. He’s one of our international advisors, and he was writing a book on empathy. And at that time, it was now 10 years ago, he said he couldn’t put empathy in the title.
So, we called it born for love and the subtitle, why empathy is important, and is endangered.
So, I think we have made progress. That’s the good news. And that people may just think it’s about perspective taking, and that’s okay. But I think, younger people, teenagers, university students are now more aware because it comes up in their studies.

And, you know, I just wrote a new theme for our online program for four Roots of Empathy during the pandemic. And one of the themes is courage. And students in the discussion of this, and our instructors, in the discussion of this said that having empathy would give you more courage, because you would understand how being courageous could help somebody else, not just yourself, that having courage is not just about conquering your own fears, which is how it was generally understood. But it’s about being able to challenge an injustice, which puts you in a precarious position, whether it’s the injustice of someone being excluded, and you call it out, and you run the risk of losing your friends, because you’ve called it out. Or having empathy, as some of the kids would say, allows you to understand how other people feel and to stick up for them.

So, I think empathy is certainly trending is one of the words for this year. And my hope is that it will be followed with actions, empathic actions, this world, if you look at the climate, if you look at all of the challenges we have, they require empathy in the solution.

Well, and I think it’s so interesting, when you frame it that way, to look at what kind of impact the pandemic is having, and will continue to have on empathy. And, you know, I think it has brought the whole idea of the common good to the fore. And put it under a spotlight, like we’ve never experienced in quite some time. So the idea here is, you know, are we in this together? I think we’ve seen these, this wording in a lot of different places, politicians, etc. We’re all in this together. But at the same time, there are so many people who look at this, as you know, it’s infringing on my personal individual freedom. So where does it, where is it going to lead us when we get out of here from, from the point of view of what you’re doing, and you’ve dedicated your life to?

It is really quite interesting. But I really appreciate that you tagged on the idea that people who challenge the policies about mask wearing and everything there is a perfect example of the complete absence and denial of empathy, that your rights and your comfort come before the rights and the health of the other, that your civil rights, your individual rights eclipse the common good. And I think I’m very encouraged about how people have responded around the world there has been increased empathy because people are beginning to understand
And here’s the benefit of our media, and including social media, people have been able to understand the experience of the other. And because most of us have been impacted in some way personally, about this pandemic, we have the ability to feel with the other, and you don’t get altruism. And I just mean by altruism, giving, without any sense of getting that you don’t get the altruism and kindness that we are seeing. Without empathy. It just doesn’t happen without empathy. So, empathy is the motor for our highest human enterprises of, of seeing one another and helping one another and feeling a sense of responsibility for it’s the Martin Buber I am now and it’s, you know, if you looked at it from, I guess, a political perspective, it’s about an egalitarianism society, where we realize we’re all equally vulnerable.

And that’s what you’re referring to that we are all impacted by this. It’s a complete leveler, there’s no such thing of buying your way out of this, or it’s everybody. We’re in this together, as you said, and I think when we look at this, when we’ve had a chance to get a bit away from it, there will definitely be learnings from this that I hope we don’t forget.

On that note, when we talk about parents and their role in teaching empathy, as their child’s first educators, what advice could you offer to parents on how to teach their children empathy? And also, is it ever too late to teach a child empathy?

Well, let me answer your first question.
I don’t think it is ever too late to develop empathy. And I just want to nudge a little bit the word teach that we say reach instead, because most learning that happens with our children, is through relationships. And the relationship that the parent has with the child is what makes the child really, in a relationship have the deepest learning possible, because deep learning is learning that is connected to emotion. And the parents’ words will stay with the child even though children may do absolutely everything in their power to challenge our authority. That is normal. But the deep lessons last and what can parents do to help their children develop empathy? I think the first thing they need to realize is that you don’t have to become a teacher, you are the teacher. And your messages are how you live your life. Your messages are how you look what you say. I don’t mean physically how you look. But do you roll your eyes, which is not a very nice thing to say? Do you criticize others? Are you speaking kindly?
How do you let your child understand how you see the world because that is how they will see the world. So, the very good message for parents is your best lessons are love that because you will give up your life for your child. That’s an exclusive role you have and makes you a powerful, lifelong teacher.

So when you show your child empathy, when you listen to them, when you take the time to say I’m listening, and not to be doing something else, but to give them your undivided attention deep listening. The child feels respected. So the child will learn to listen to others. When you speak kindly everybody is going to lose your temper. I’m not suggesting that anybody has to be perfect, but I am saying that if we ask for forgiveness, after we’ve lost our cool and explain we’ve lost our cool apologies what a massive lesson for the child that you too can make mistakes. But we own up for them. That when parents are showing empathy to anybody, whether it’s a member of the family, or it’s a stranger, whomever the children see you, just like they see us when we tell them now only cross at the crosswalk. We’re just going without the crosswalk because mom’s in a big hurry. That is not helpful, because they learn they’re in a big hurry. They can go aside from the crosswalk. But I you know, the reason I I use the parent and the baby, as the world’s most powerful model of empathy is because babies are loved into who they are. Yes, they come predisposed with emotion, temperament traits, but it is through the millions of interactions that you know the cooing, the hugging, the petting, the loving glances the singing all of the things that parents do without any instruction.

You construct loving relationships, you don’t teach them so that parents when they’re watching a television show, if they say to the child, wow, how do you think he felt when she did so and so you are giving the child an opportunity to think about how the other person felt.

So I mentioned earlier on you can have cognitive empathy, or affective empathy, which is emotional literacy. Well, parents can absolutely help their children develop a language for their emotions by saying to them, oh, I felt so embarrassed. When I made a mistake in a, you know, a presentation I was giving at work, when you make yourself vulnerable and use the language that talks not just about positive emotions, but difficult emotions, you’re giving the child permission to say how they felt embarrassed when they showed up on the zoom teaching, and they hadn’t done the homework, that it allows your child to feel that they are able to still be themselves. And to understand how other people feel embarrassed or frightened or ashamed. Even we work with shame in this culture, unfortunately.

So the parent has amazing every day opportunities, you don’t have to create them to be aware that what you say and what you do, help your child become empathic or not. And even just watching a video together, allows you to have meaningful discussions. If you don’t want to interrupt the video, you can talk afterwards about how someone felt to take the perspective and then to use the language of your emotions. Parents are brilliant at this, they don’t give themselves credit. It doesn’t mean that your children are going to be angels. But it does build and accumulate and give them this language so that they can understand themselves. And they can tell you when they’re upset, and they can recognize when someone else is upset. And they then they can have empathy, action, they can do something. No, our children will fight because they’re competing for your attention. But they also will help one another. And it’s seeing those opportunities and catching them and remarking on them that really help children understand what it means to be empathic.

So many important messages in what you’ve shared with us, Mary Gordon, founder of Roots of Empathy. Thank you so much for your time. I think it’s safe to say that your message and sort of just the fruits of all of your efforts have never been more resonant than in the time that we’re currently living in. So thank you so much.

Thank you very much all the very best to you!

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Related links:

Roots of Empathy

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