2 min

Teaching empathy

Skip the flashy, anti-bullying photo ops and fund real culture change

I could focus on Premier Christy Clark’s shallow soundbytes. 

I could focus on her education minister’s bewildering backtracking when pressed for specifics about his own statement that “work is underway” to strengthen the mandatory codes of conduct that his government supposedly implemented five years ago.
But I would rather focus on the potentially culture-changing insight that at least some of the participants (if not the politicians) brought to Clark’s anti-bullying summit last month. 
Aggression — whether it’s in the classroom, the killing fields or specifically aimed at gay people — stems from a willingness to turn a person into a thing, says Barbara Coloroso.
“They didn’t kill Tutsis in Rwanda. They killed cockroaches,” the bestselling author on conflict resolution told the summit. “It’s about utter contempt for another human being.” 
If the aggressor could imagine the pain they were inflicting on another person — if, more importantly, they cared about the pain they were inflicting — they’d be less likely to inflict it.
Simple concept, but it’s amazing how little compassion surrounds us in our daily lives. From political attack ads, to videos encouraging us to laugh rather than cringe at other people’s pain, bullying has become the norm, Coloroso says. We are living in a climate of cruelty.
We have to teach kids what bullying is, Coloroso says, “but we have to go beyond that.” We have to teach them to care.
That’s what Mary Gordon has been trying to do with her Roots of Empathy program for more than a decade. 
You can’t legislate kindness, she says, but you can create opportunities for kids to decide to be kind.
The Roots program, whose funding Clark restored last year, pairs classrooms of elementary students with infants who visit regularly throughout the school year. Watching babies learn to express their feelings gives the kids a chance to reflect on their own — and those of others. It stokes their empathy.
Empathy is at the root of all prosocial behaviour, Gordon says. “It’s the secret sauce that’s been ignored for so long.”
People are not monsters, Gordon says, but without empathy they can’t really understand how their victims feel. Roots graduates are more likely to feel for kids being bullied — and to step in. 
Imagine if every child starting school in BC this year could participate in the Roots program. Imagine if every child in the world were routinely encouraged to care about others. It would change the world.
“Would it curb homophobia?” I ask Gordon. 
“It curbs anything that’s cruel,” she says without hesitation. It teaches us that we’re all different in many, many ways — and “we’re all the same because we share the same feelings.”
This year, the Roots program will reach 11,000 children in 440 classrooms in BC. While her flashier photo ops focus on her ambitiously titled Erase Bullying program, Clark has also promised to fund Roots for the next five years.
I think broadening the Roots program, and pairing it with anti-homophobia bridge training, should be a top priority. While Erase Bullying adds a few new shiny bits to previously announced yet unfulfilled promises, Roots quietly offers to reshape our culture.
“This doesn’t stop here,” Clark promised as she thanked the summit participants. “We have a moment in time where we can really make a big difference.”
It’s always a good moment to make a difference, especially when people have the tools and insight to use them. Surely a premier with nothing to lose will seize the moment to bring substance to her soundbytes.
She won’t win the next election, but she could establish a comprehensive framework that puts a significant dent in the culture of cruelty that surrounds us. Isn’t that worth more than an unwinnable seat in the legislature?