True Empathy

11/26/2013 02:15 pm ET | Updated Jan 26, 2014

Cruelty and callousness seem to haunt many corners of American life. Bullying allegations surface almost weekly in national news. In recent weeks we've heard about both the alleged bullying of a football player and of Jewish children in a middle school being subjected to brutal anti-Semitic harassment. A few weeks ago a teenage girl was mercilessly bullied by two other girls -- a possible factor in her suicide. Over Labor Day weekend, approximately 300 students -- now known as the Stephentown 300 -- broke into the home of former NFL player Brian Holloway and urinated on carpets, graffitied walls, and stole personal belongings while gaudily photo-documenting their exploits on Instagram and Twitter.

These events are clearly extreme. But quieter, everyday selfishness and indifference to others -- among both children and their parents -- is all too ordinary. Students who struggle socially are too often mocked, gay teens are still too commonly ostracized in many schools, and too many parents are hyper-focused on their own children while nearly blind to other children -- they harangue players on the opposing team at sporting events or lobby for more playing time for their own child, for instance, or quickly jump on their child's teacher for failing to immediately remove a student with a behavior problem who is disrupting their own child's learning.

What to do? Across the country, empathy is now being heralded as a key part of the answer, and many parents and teachers are being told how to develop it in children. If people can walk in one another's shoes, the thinking goes, they won't act so hurtfully.

Empathy is at the heart of what it means to be human. It's not only a foundation for ethical functioning and professional success but for good relationships of many kinds and for loving well. Yet it's also vital to understand what true empathy is. There's far more to empathy than simply understanding another person's point of view. After all, con men and torturers are highly skilled at understanding others' perspectives -- so they can bore in on their victims' weaknesses. Siblings can have hawk-like skills at spotting and preying on each other's most shameful vulnerabilities and fears. Salespeople, politicians, actors and marketers are often very deft at taking other perspectives but they may not care any more about other people than the rest of us.

What's more, we often talk about empathy as a quantity. For example, we speak of children as having a lot or a little empathy or as lacking empathy entirely. Yet the issue often isn't whether children can empathize or how much empathy they have. It is who they have empathy for. For most of us, it's not hard to have empathy for our family members and close friends. It's also human nature to have more empathy for people who are like us in some way. But the real issue is whether children (and adults) have empathy outside that circle.

Our goal should be to not only help children take others' viewpoints but to value diverse perspectives and people. How do we expand children's circle of empathy and concern?

The simple reality is that children will come to value what and whom we signal that we value. Children tend to have a razor-sharp alertness, for example, to whom we notice and appreciate. They'll notice if we treat a waitress or a mail carrier as if they're invisible. On the positive side, they'll register if we welcome a new family in our child's school or express concern about another child in our child's class who has a behavior difficulty. Our daily expectations of children also send important signals--we send an important message if we encourage children, for instance, to reach out to lonely kids on the playground--even or especially if those kids speak a different language or live in another neighborhood.

We can also expand our children's circle of concern by asking them who is in and who is out of this circle, and why, and then talking about how they might be more inclusive. Perhaps more important, we can at pivotal times show what we value most by putting children's concern for others above their happiness, for example, insisting at times that they turn off the TV and help around the house, or respect our friends even when they are in a bad mood, or not dominate the airwaves when they are talking to other children or adults.

There are also many barriers to children feeling empathy. Envy, shame, greed and pride can block empathy. So can prejudices and stereotypes. Before we label a child unempathic, we need to be mindful of these barriers and diligent about helping children alleviate or cope with them.

Building true empathy isn't the only answer to preventing cruelty, but it's a good start, and it's the foundation of any caring and just society. And wonderfully, we just might find in building this empathy and humanity in children that we deepen and expand our own.

Support from and input from Ashoka: Innovators for the Public was helpful in producing this work.

For more information about strategies for promoting empathy and for research indicating that empathy is important for school, professional and life success, please visit the Making Caring Common Project website at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.