To Educate Empathy, Educate Imagination

Responding by email to my article last week on children’s natural inclination toward empathy Allan, grandfather of Elise, wrote:

Having just spent five days with a 3 ½-year-old, I can reaffirm everything you say in this.

While her mom was working nearby, Elise and I had a wonderful pretend game where she was the proprietor of an ice cream shop and I was the customer.   She stood on the other side of a table and served me.   Unfortunately she only stocked chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, so just to stretch her imagination a bit (after enjoying a chocolate cone), I started asking for flavors she didn’t have.

“Do you have any jamocha almond fudge?”

“No, only chocolate, vanilla and strawberry!”

“Any pistachio?”

“No!  I told you, just chocolate, vanilla and strawberry.”

This went on for maybe 8 more uncommon flavors.  Then I asked:

“Do you have any birdseed ice cream, Elise?”

“What?  There’s no such thing as birdseed ice cream.”

That led to an interesting discussion of whether birds can eat ice cream.

Great fun.

I guess the context of this story is not so much about building empathy as reaffirming kids’ imagination, meeting them where they are, and stretching them out of their intellectual comfort zones.

One of my favorite “bits” with toddlers is watching them holding say, a brown bear toy and saying, “Can I have that green giraffe?” That not only makes toddlers reinforce what they already know, but confront authority in a safe way when the authority figure is doing something obviously stupid.

And I don’t correct kids’ grammar mistakes as they’re struggling to learn a crazy language like English. I just use the terms correctly myself and trust that they will pick it up because, after all, they do want to speak correctly.

Allan’s vignettes are indeed about building empathy because they are about building imagination. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes requires imagination. Others are not thinking and feeling the way you are thinking and feeling; they are thinking and feeling the way they are thinking and feeling. That requires imagination—a lot of it.

Children are better stewards of their reality-testing-mechanism than anyone else. In fact, come to think of it, consider the arrogance of adults who think they can do a better job of building their children’s brain than the children themselves.

Allan’s thoughts go to the core of raising children: Do we treat them as if we, the culture bearers, need to instruct them in order for them to become acculturated, or as if their education is one continuous self-directed drive to map reality onto their brain?

(Photo from Janet Lansbury’s essay on a baby’s social learning)

Parents usually get it right during the first year or so. They don’t try to teach their children so much as interact with them and have fun. When their baby first says, “Mama,” they don’t say, “No, no. That’s ‘Mommy.’” They bubble over with delight and shriek, “She said my name!” Parents instinctively know that children will get the words right by copying. All a parent has to do is be his delightful, loving self and the child will learn to speak.

By the age of four children know the past tenses of 10,000 verbs even though they may only have heard a couple hundred. You discover this is true when they come up with words like: “goed, or bringed, or eated.” Their path toward adulthood is paved with thousands of mistakes. Only adults act like there is such a thing as a mistake-free zone. (Adults ought to know better.)

If we think of Allan as a teacher with a lesson plan, there is only one thing going on: what he is teaching (vocabulary, consideration of others, arithmetic, etc.) However, if Allan is an educator—and clearly he is—there are several things going on, not one. He is teaching her; she is teaching him; he is learning about her; she is learning about him; she is learning about herself; she is developing her ability to put herself inside someone else’s brain; they are each building their own relationship brain. Most importantly, she is experiencing the impact she can have on the world, increasing her repertoire for doing that, and in the process learning that she matters.

The core competency of all educators—parents, grandparents and teachers, alike—is to know how to “Treat children as if they know what they are doing.”

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5 thoughts on “To Educate Empathy, Educate Imagination

  1. Oh, what a lovely man is Allan; next time he’s in Toronto, I’d love him to visit with my family! (Rick, you’re invited too, of course!)

    What a charming play-to-learn vignette was Elise’s ice-cream shop with Allan playing along right there. Did you notice how he ever-so-gently introduced Conflict? When Elise was emphatically “chocolate, vanilla and strawberry” this true gentle-man* tested and teased her comfort zone in true executive brainstorming fashion – but at a playful child’s level. As in many a fine food, a dash of salt along with the sugar!

    I love his brown-bear / green-giraffe dialogues to help Elise reinforce what she already knew. I do the same with my Brit-typical tendencies of stupidity, clumsiness and self-deprecation; I’m so glad when the other plays along with me!

    Allan, and Rick too, were obviously delighted with the outcomes, and I’m sure Elise and Mom too.

    But here’s that all-pervasive Empathy word cropping up again. It’s an important but awkward noun with sharp edges and deep holes, not too easy to digest; its counterpart, “You’ve got NO empathy!” is a stinging put-down.

    So how can we cut through the verbiage, peel back the noise and red herrings that submerge Empathy and thus resurrect it? We need a fresh look for something simple and easy, at least easier, to swallow so that we non-professionals can use it# at home and in life, here and now.

    First, let’s grasp the big picture: ours is a synergistic universe; no one thing exists entirely on its own: if it wasn’t for our sun, planet earth would have disappeared into the nothingness of space long ago. We and everything around us depend somewhat on something and someone elses; the better the one can Empathize with the others the better off all will be!

    Plus, ours is a big world; 7 billion humans, and multitudes of animal and vegetation lovers; big numbers (but, thankfully, not all our responsibility!).

    Because Empathy is so universally important; some ability to Empathize and skill to respond constructively is essential to survival, period. As Darwin explained, the better the abilities, the better are ones chances of surviving and prospering.

    Second, to delve into Empathy, it’s best to resist the impulse that’s so easy with Google search – dig down into the (real or imagined) microcosm of the noun Empathy or its ho-hum sister, the verb “to empathize.” Sure, you can google a multitude of so-so definitions and hone in on one that seems to work for you; great. But, if you think of Empathy as one concept or even as one concept per type of application, you’re not certain whether it’ll work for you and little Johnny today and, if it does, what the results will be.

    Let’s think horizontally, not vertically.

    For openers we need a Definition of Empathy, ‘Identification with and understanding of something of another’s world to uncover and implement solution(s) that aid the other(s) to do better.’

    If you test this right now, mentally, you’ll see that it is a do-able definition, one we can work with. Notice that, to be WORKABLE, it’s not one concept or process in one situation; it is a set of many of these sitting side by side as steps in sequence usable in a variety of situations. Maybe we could call it the ‘Empathy Sequence’ and prepare ourselves a checklist; this is my rough draft:

    1. Don’t wake up without your willingness to;
    (a) BE THERE IN THE MOMENT as your day unfolds, and
    (b) BE INTERESTED in the world that passes you by.

    2. Throughout the day, whenever an Interesting Ping, signal, catches your Attention:

    (a) STOP & CLEAR THE DECKS, remove the biggest distractions; (i) shake away your own cobwebs, (ii) fix whatever you see distracting the other person that moment and (iii) straighten your mutual environment by turning off the TV, ensuring you have a reasonable chunk of time, etc. Once these three important SPACES are (relatively) calm and orderly, now you can move on to …

    (b) FOCUS ON and OBSERVE what you see, and Indentify what you think needs to be done.

    (c) Choose to ACT or NOT ACT. Maybe you’re interested in that mother-and-child interaction in the mall but you decide not to engage; fine, stay on as an Observer or jump to (h) below.

    (d) THINK FORWARD; have some kind of Plan of Action in mind, however rudimentary.

    (e) ACT ONE, especially important with strangers: establish a degree of rapport … (expand) …. Look for any significant counter-intention; if so, go back to step (a) above … keep Being in the Moment and Observing.

    (f) ACT TWO; you’ll Observe when you’ve established a personal rapport, a degree of empathy; now you can lead the discussion deeper … (expand) … move forward like a sheep dog herding her flock. This way the solution to the problem or opportunity becomes clear and it is THEIR solution, and thus more readily actionable.

    (g) End Off now before you … (expand).

    (h) Resume … resume from where they left off .. (expand).

    (i) Review & Congratulate … (expand).

    Elise was lucky, Granddad Allan is a natural and the child was a pristine landscape of fresh snow on a sunny day so that his Empathy exercise was a breeze. Likely Allan arrived at Elise’s home with 1(a) and (b) in place and, on observing her at play, flashed through 2(a) to (i) like a knife through butter.

    But as one moves up in age one can face multitudes of complexities, and counter- and other-intentions that make the attainment of Empathy more challenging and the need for a step-by-step guide more obvious. Clearly working with an argumentative elementary student, truculent teen, know-best university grad, talkative new hire in the creative department … or aspiring politician (shudder!) … one needs something step-by-step and help using it#.

    This is lots of words; I hope I’ve tickled some interest rather than drowned you in verbiage!

    Best wishes for a great week!
    Parent Peter in Toronto,
    *Gentle-men Allan and Rick remind me so much of the Chinese proverb, “Govern a family as you would cook a small fish – very gently.”
    # The how-to-use part of this is a whole other post.

  2. Peter,
    You’ve got me thinking–with plenty to think about.
    First question: What are you solving for here? The plan for teaching empathy?
    The plan for being empathic?
    Thank you for all your thoughtfulness.

  3. Good questions, Rick; thanks for asking (your 1a and 1b are working well, wink!)

    I seek to “Assemble a portfolio of life’s workable Basics and Sequences, and craft them into Process’s that are simple enough for the general public to apply to solve diverse every-day situations and routinely produce discernable positive outcomes.”

    Currently my quest is at an early embryo stage. What you see above is barely recognizable as a rudimentary skeleton but it will evolve into a functional, load-bearing form as experts add flesh and blood along the way. Once this Sequence can “stand on its own two feet”, I have a special coaching regime in mind to breath life into its body and show that it can produce results. These steps will be followed to assemble a variety of Process’s and Adaptations under the umbrella of a self-sustaining enterprise.

    Of course this is a herculean task worthy of a small dedicated army that will need financial support until it becomes self-supporting. I believe that the task is worthy and doable, and the necessary leadership and resources are available to make it happen.

    Have a wonderful weekend, all!
    Parent Peter in Toronto,

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