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Learning About Empathy: Child Teaches Teacher What it Really Means

By Cindy Reitzi,
Madison substitute teacher

April 2000

Before we learn embarrassment and adult defense mechanisms to protect ourselves, we are in the state of childhood. Watching recent school tragedies across the country on the evening news, we get the impression that children and young people are, instead, in a state of siege.

When this impression sticks, we have to think urgently about empathy and how we acquire what used to seem like a natural trait. Why focus on empathy? Because, to consciously plan and kill someone specifically, it is impossible to be empathetic toward that person or persons.

Empathy is to feel with, to imagine the feelings of another whom you know or don’t know. Empathy is philosophically emotional in its stance; it is to acknowledge our ethical landscape as fellow creatures. Empathy is more than sympathy and different than sensitivity. People can be sensitive and feel a great deal, but be oblivious to others’ feelings or how their actions affect them. The students, who consciously shot their classmates and fully understood their actions, were “sensitive” and felt a great deal. But ultimately, they lacked empathy for their victims and for the grieving survivors left alive to mourn them.

Empathy is the most profound emotional vantage point we can take as a people. Empathy is an especially powerful trait when people “feel with” others whose experience of the world they don’t directly understand or share. It can change history when “free” whites oppose slavery or institutional racism or when heterosexuals oppose discrimination against gays and lesbians even though neither group has personally experienced these forms of oppression.

Without empathy, we cannot really call ourselves “civilized.”

On a simpler, everyday level, young children who show a sophisticated sense of empathy compared to some of their elders have inspired me. Louis* is one such child. In a short time, I’ve come to like Louis. He has a spirit of mischief, curiosity, and sense of community in his kindergarten universe. His intense brown eyes reflect all the academic stimulation as well as the emotional currents around him.

On the day before a field trip to a pumpkin patch, the teacher, Mr. P, discusses how to dress appropriately for the weather. Jamal, Louis’ best friend, sits on Mr. P’s lap while children sit on the carpet around them.

“Should we wear mittens?” asks Mr. P.

“Yes,” answer the children in unison.

“I don’t have any!” Jamal announces un-self-consciously to the class.

With every subsequent question about hats, boots, and scarves, Jamal replies, “I don’t have any!” With every declaration, Louis becomes more distressed: his brow furrows and his brown eyes widen in genuine pain for his friend. I half expect Louis to bring Jamal an entire winter outfit the next day. Even though Mr. P reassures Jamal that the school will supply him with the winter items, Louis still seems distressed by the deeper implications: Why doesn’t Jamal have warm clothes like he does? Someone he loves is suffering because he doesn’t have “enough.” It’s an injustice Louis cannot understand, but by recess he knows how to respond.

On the playground, I see Jamal with one mitten, and forgetting he doesn’t have any, I ask, “Jamal, where’s your other mitten?”

“I don’t have any!” I look puzzled.

“It’s Louis’ mitten.” Louis, close by, walks up and takes Jamal’s naked hand. In a vision of emotional symmetry, each holds up one mittened hand: Louis to the left and Jamal to the right.

“He shared,” explains Jamal. Moved by his gesture, I’m a little speechless. I smile at Louis; Louis smiles back.

“Well,” I joke, “you guys look like Michael Jackson!”

They laugh and bounce off to play.

As a kindergartner, Louis has taught me a very concrete lesson in understanding. Louis doesn’t know what it’s like to lack winter clothing, but he understands what it feels like to be out in the cold. * the names of children have been changed

Posted May 26, 2000


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