Steve Harvey recently interviewed a family from Manhattan who run a mobile food bank for the city’s homeless citizens. The piece was a perfect example of the nature of empathy as discussed by Cameron, Inzlicht & Cunningham in the July 12, 2015 Sunday New York Times. Both talk about empathy less as a character trait than a conscious choice to help those less fortunate.
The frequency with which individuals choose to act empathically varies greatly. For some it is a somewhat inconsistent response to the needs of others, often driven by proximity, personal involvement, or the scope of a particular human tragedy. For others, empathy is a way of life. These are people who are responsive to the needs of others wherever they find them.
Variations people’s level of empathic connections are probably best explained by early experiences that develop an individual’s capacity to think representationally. In other words, to imagine another’s thoughts or feelings within one’s own mind.
There are lots of ways to foster this type of “mindsight” in children. Playing games is a great place to start. Card games, board games, team sports. It doesn’t matter. Any game that requires a child to think about another’s thoughts, and act on those perceptions, helps to develop representational thought, or the ability to see situations as others see them.
Learning about perspective-taking in art is another way to strengthen this ability. So are reading, imaginary play, role playing, and drama. These activities encourage children to “try on” the perspectives of different characters, and notice how these are different than their own.
As children’s capacity of representational thought or mindsight grows, so does their ability to engage more frequently in empathic behaviors. They become less judgmental, and more compassionate in their understanding of the world. To paraphrase Einstein, they are able to see beyond the optical illusion that we are separate, and realize the truth that we are one.
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Coming soon Trauma-Sensitive Schools: Learning Communities Transforming Children’s Lives. Watch for it at Teacher’s College Press and Amazon.com.