Roots of empathy
MARY GORDON was interviewed by JUDITH NELSON at the Spirit of Humanity Forum in Iceland in 2019. In this excerpt, she shares her worldview on the importance of empathy in human relationships and how it forms the foundation for the program she runs in schools on developing empathy in schoolchildren, called Roots of Empathy.
Q: Thanks for joining me, Mary. Can I ask you about empathy, as your work is especially with empathy?
MG: Well, my understanding of empathy is the ability to feel with the other person, not just to understand how they feel, but also to have the capacity to feel with them. And I think that empathy is the number one attribute of being human, and we have too little of it in the world, and it’s a shrinking commodity. But I also focus on empathy because when you have cruelty, when you have racism, when you have violence, when you have genocides, when you have any of the big horrific things in the world, the common ingredient is the absence of empathy.
My work is informed by that conclusion, which I came to a long time ago, and also the conclusion that empathy develops in the first year of life, in the loving relationship between parents and babies. And so, our work is about increasing empathy in childhood. And we do that by bringing the relationship between parents and babies, during the first year of the child’s life, into the classroom. The Roots of Empathy program has the schoolchildren sit around a green blanket, with the mother and baby and an instructor. There is a curriculum, which the children don’t see, but which informs what goes on. And the children are coached to observe the baby’s intentions, and the baby’s feelings. We’re talking about a two-to-four-month-old baby who can’t walk, can’t talk, but can communicate hugely, bringing parents to tears, and bringing them to their knees. They can really communicate! So, as the children come to understand how the baby feels, they learn the vocabulary of their own emotions. And it’s the job of the Roots of Empathy instructor to ask the children, “When was a time you felt like the baby?”
We want children to be kind,
to be considerate, to be collaborative,
to be caring, and that’s what
the Roots of Empathy children are.
… There are different curricula for different ages of children. It is quite remarkable how the children increase their empathy. We have a lot of research that shows when empathy goes up aggression goes down, and prosocial behavior goes up. We want children to be kind, to be considerate, to be collaborative, to be caring, and that’s what the Roots of Empathy children are.
Q: Is there a relationship between empathy and harmony?
MG: Well, harmony is such a beautiful word. Harmony has a musical reference, but really it’s a symbiotic word. The whole universe is in harmony and it’s in equilibrium. When a newborn baby is born, she or he is discombobulated, and has to seek through the parent (through the mother usually) a way to integrate all of their feelings, and to become attuned to the parent. And in the work of Roots of Empathy, the symbiotic relationship with the parent is called an attunement – the attachment and attunement of the parent to the baby. Here we’re talking about harmony – one to the other, and to the universe, and to concepts of peace. So, I really like the term “harmony.”
When you reflect and listen to birdsong, and listen to the rustle of leaves, or the waves in the ocean, you can very easily adjust your heartbeat and adjust your whole sensibility to be in harmony with nature. We do that more readily than being in harmony with the world.
In the work of Roots of Empathy,
the symbiotic relationship
with the parent is called an attunement –
the attachment and attunement
of the parent to the baby.
Here we’re talking about harmony –
one to the other, and to the universe,
and to concepts of peace
Q: If you were to ask yourself what children need in today’s world to help them develop values, what would you say?
MG: I think they are basic human values: The recognition and inalienable rights of people, human dignity, participation. People who come here typically share a purpose.
They might have different avenues, but there is a common denominator of peaceful coexistence on many levels, and, in the Roots of Empathy work, we’re really helping children find a sense of balance in their lives. Number one is that they respect and love themselves, have self-empathy. Because, if you don’t love yourself, and if you don’t have empathy for yourself, you don’t have the ability to love others or to have empathy for others. The problem with the absence of empathy in the world, the decline of empathy, which can be a generational thing, is that if a little baby is not parented empathically, and if the parent is unable to understand and attune to the baby’s needs, the child doesn’t develop the capacity to attune to the needs of others, to have empathy.
… And I think the basic human trait that we need in the world is empathy. If you have that, honesty emerges out of it, respect emerges out of it. When we say to the little children in the Roots of Empathy classroom, “So, when baby Henri grows up and comes to school, what would you think if people say ‘You can’t play’?” the children in class are horrified that anyone would be mean to their little baby. They all fall in love with the baby, and they see the vulnerability and humanity in the baby. During that year, they come to find their own vulnerability and their own humanity, and also their strength. And then they see the strength in humanity and in others.
It’s almost as if empathy is the “cure all,” the secret sauce of life. If we can just empathize, it’s a little bit like the Golden Rule: If you understand how someone is going to feel, why would you hurt them, why would you exclude them, why would you say you’re somehow less human than I am? It removes the possibility of dehumanizing one another and hiving people off and saying, “Your difference makes you unacceptable.” We celebrate difference in Roots of Empathy, and it’s not visual, it’s not the typical differences of culture and language, of size, or whatever.
We talk about the difference in our innate temperament; that a baby comes to the world with a predisposition to see that world in many ways. Some babies are very intense and emotionally reactive. It’s very hard to parent a baby who’s very intense. In the classroom, it’s very hard to teach a child who’s very intense, because they are super reactive. They have temper tantrums; when they are disappointed they have a big reaction. But, if the little baby has a big reaction, nobody says, “You’re a bad baby.” Nobody says, “Go to your room.” Everyone helps the baby learn to deal with the big feelings, and what that does is soften everybody to realize, “Wow, I am like the little baby, too. It’s not a moral flaw if I’m very emotionally reactive. It’s who I am.” And the job of teachers and parents and mentors is to help children recognize who they are, and help them to live in the world that is. It is not to squash them, but to help them understand their reactions. So, when we think about the traits and qualities we need in growing up, I think we really need a lot of self-love, giving us the capacity to love others.
Interviewed by JUDITH NELSON
Illustrations by ARATI SHEDDE
April 01, 2021
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