Getting children to understand the feelings of others is not an easy task, but it’s an important one. In my eyes, it’s actually THE most important one. Understanding how other people feel makes it easier to live a compassionate and conscientious life. Being a good person is certainly possible without that piece, but if you can’t relate to other people’s feelings, it’s a lot harder to know how not to hurt them.
Here in the U.S., we seem to think empathy is something that emerges naturally. And when it doesn’t, we think there must be a problem. But a program for grade school students in Japan shows an entirely different way of thinking. The idea there is that the honest expression of feelings—and ability to connect with the feelings of others—is a skill that must be practiced. And these skills deserve a central role in the school curriculum.
So how do they do it?
With one of the best tools we have to help people relate to other people’s situations: personal narrative.
Children are asked to write down their experiences in notebooks and read them aloud to the class. Then, the class reacts. It sounds simple enough, but these are not just stories about bike riding on the weekend. Anything is game, and intensity is encouraged. The video below shows a day in a classroom where a boy tells a story about his Grandmother’s death. The range of experiences that come up, and the reactions they trigger in other children, is truly amazing.
American empathy education seems to start and end with adults asking children to put themselves into other people’s shoes. Imagine how much more meaningful the trip would be if they didn’t get there by being scolded, but by being invited.
photo: Gideon Tsang/flickr