The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Creating a Culture of Empathy

After writing one particularly long post about the Virginia Tech shootings, followed by a three part series, I thought I’d gotten everything I had to say out of my system. But when we attended the Rainbow Families DC conference a couple of weekends ago, we made it a point to attend the discussion groups on dealing with elementary and middle school as same-sex parents. It was the second one, which asked us to “dream big” and envision what an inclusive curriculum would look like.

When I imagined it, I immediately thought about one aspect of the sex-ed curriculum launched in Montgomery county, Maryland — and fought tooth and nail by PFOX — that I posted about earlier. In particular, I was reminded of a particular aspect of the curriculum that I posted about back in November, entitled “Respect for Differences,” which seemed to inspire (aside from the unit on condoms) the most or the strongest objections from the right. And as I sat there trying to wrap my brain about what a gay-inclusive curriculum would look like, one word kept popping into my head.

Empathy. Defined as (and this is my favorite definition among the ones I found) “feeling of concern and understanding for another’s situation or feelings.”

It sounds simplistic and naive. It probably is. But stay with me here. I promise I’m going somewhere with this.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , ,


It’s something I had to learn to rely on as a parent, especially when Parker was a toddler and didn’t have the verbal skills he has now. I had to empathize with him, and try to see the world from his point of view. As a parenting tactic, I think it’s paid off in that my son feels safe and secure talking to me about his feelings.

It’s also something I try to use with Parker whenever there’s an opportunity, by getting him to think about how he would feel if someone behaved a certain way towards him, and trying to get him to think about how it would make him feel if someone teased him or was mean to him, and explain to him that others have the same feelings. I don’t know how much of it is that kind of parenting work and how much of it is just his growing up, but I’ve noticed a “kindness streak” in Parker when he interacts with other children lately, especially younger children.

If I had to frame it around values, for me it’s based in the Buddhist ethic of non-harming.

Essentially, according to Buddhist teachings, the ethical and moral principles are governed by examining whether a certain action, whether connected to body or speech is likely to be harmful to one’s self or to others and thereby avoiding any actions which are likely to be harmful. In Buddhism, there is much talk of a skilled mind. A mind that is skilful avoids actions that are likely to cause suffering or remorse.

But you could just as easily frame it around “the Golden Rule.” Either way, values are not so much about what we believe as they are about what we do and why. It’s not enough to tell kids that it’s wrong to hurt others. We have to show them why, too.

I sat there wondering why it can’t be that simple.

Back in November I wrote this about the “Respect for Differences” curriculum.

A curriculum introduced a year ago raised objections from a small group of right-wingers (none of whom appear to have kids in Montgomery County schools, as far as I can tell), and the current one is still raising objections; particularly the part entitled “Respect for Differences in Human Sexuality,” which discourages stereotyping and encourages empathy (asking students to consider the challenges LGBT students face, and put themselves in the other person’s position for a minute) and treating others with dignity and respect despite differences.

And the objectives of the 8th grade curriculum say pretty much the same thing.

Students will be able to

Explain how tolerance and empathy can lead to positive relationships and/or a positive school environment.

• List reasons people stereotype or harass others.

• Define human sexuality, gender identity, sexual identity, sexual orientation, bisexual, heterosexual, and homosexual.

But that’s a empathy specifically in the context of gay & lesbian issues. As I thought about it, I remembered a New York Times article I came across in the course of researching for previous posts., about an anti-bias program created for schools by the Anti-Defamation League.

In Greenwich, where diverse doesn’t begin to describe the pan-cultural buzz animating the school’s hangar-size cafeteria, “Names,” as the program is known, is cool — as in “Hey, you doing ‘Names’ this year? It rocks.” After five years, “Names” day is assured a place on the school calendar, along with homecoming, SAT prep and the prom.

…Over the last 11 years, some 65,600 Connecticut high school students have participated in “Names,” which is sponsored and supervised by the Connecticut Office of the Anti-Defamation League. Guided by teachers, trained student volunteers and league facilitators, students talk with the unflinching candor of children about topics most adults would prefer to avoid: gossip, rumor, physical harassment, racism, homophobia, depression, eating disorders, self-mutilation, drinking, drugs, suicide — the full range of bullying behavior and its consequences.

It was probably the first thing I’ve heard of that makes sense, and that’s really inclusive. What’s probably most important about this program is that it is not specific to sexual orientation, but encompasses a whole range of experience, with the understanding that students come away with a better sense of the experience — and the humanity — of their peers.

But why do students need to talk about these things in school? It seems like in this setting students not only get to tell their stories, but they get hear the stories of their fellow students, and perhaps to see something of their own reality in them, in a way that isn’t possible if they remain in their insular cliques and anti-bullying efforts don’t go much further than a posted policy and a one-day or even one-hour assembly. In group discussions and an open mike setting, they get to tell their stories and hear from peers that they’d never have spoken to if left to stay in the orbit of their individual cliques. It gives them a chance to see each other as people.

Because right now too many of them don’t. Because the culture in our schools is a microcosm of the larger culture. It has a name too.

“Wherever we take the program, we’ve found that the issues raised are basically the same,” said a league facilitator, Sandra Vonniessen-Applebee. Though school bullies have been around longer than chalkboards, their playground and their reach have expanded in the information age. Young, media-saturated lives traverse an electronic landscape, peopled with elite “Survivor” and “American Idol” winners and an ever-growing pool of reality show losers. There are bully-centric teenage and kiddie flicks (“Mean Girls,” “Ant Bully”). Teenage chick lit series (“Gossip Girl,” “The Clique”) are bristling with hissy, sarcastic vipers wrapped in Juicy Couture. And there is Bully, a video game that depicts the adolescent atrocities facing the new student in a fictional boarding school.

“It is a pervasive media message that being mean is cool, with put-downs and the like,” Ms. Lipshez-Shapiro, said, noting that cyber-bullying, which invokes rumor and insults via the popular social-networking sites Facebook and MySpace, has become a huge concern.

Both Gwen Ifill and David Brock nailed it as the “culture of cruelty” and/or the “culture of meanness” on Meet the Press, in the wake of the Imus debacle. Author Barbara Coloroso, whose book The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander: From Preschool to High School–How Parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle of Violence is now on my “too read” list, says kids are “swimming” in it.

There is a shift to a “culture of mean,” says Barbara Coloroso, and she believes today’s youth are swimming in it.

…”I think we are experiencing something amiss culturally where the TV shows if you turn them on and people are laughing at one another’s pain,” said Coloroso. “Enjoying seeing someone kicked off the island, enjoying seeing someone go down in flames on American Idol, satire not being used but sarcasm. If you turn on radio talk . . . it’s mean and cruel.”

With teens learning to laugh at others’ pain, it’s little wonder that bullying is running rampant in North American schools, she said. And as in many other cases, the shooter at Virginia Tech and those at Columbine were what she calls “bullied bullies.” After being the target of bullying, eventually the victim becomes what he fears the most.

“The bullied bullies not only strike back but they do it with that utter contempt, that cold look on their face. They have become themselves what they hated,” explained Coloroso. “Just as he was treated as an `it,’ he treats other human beings unmercifully.”

Author Kate Borstein nailed it as well in an interview on Feministing back in August.

You make an interesting point: “As kids, most of us didn’t kill the class freaks. But, we developed something equally effective: We knew how to make the class freaks want to kill themselves.” Do you think many bullies really hate the “freaks” they’re picking on? Or do you think bullies are trying to fit in as well, but in a different way?



Good question. I’m sure it’s a little of both. I’m sure it depends on which bully. I don’t think hate comes naturally. I think we have to be taught how to hate. But I do think there are people who do hate. And people who are convinced of their right to bully other people. But I would say, shame on the parents. Shame on the community. Shame on the education system that fosters that, that allows it. That’s why I’m doing my best to get this book into as many school libraries that I can.

But we’re not. But we’re not ashamed of it. In fact, we celebrate it. It’s our entertainment. Our rule seems to be if you can use your power to harm someone weaker than you, for no good reason, do it. That you have the power to do so gives you the moral right to do so. And as long as nobody dies, we’ll cheer you for it. The problem is that the “freaks” may kill themselves, but not before ensuring that they have enough firepower to dispatch a few of their classmates into the hereafter before them.

I could write an entire other post about the “culture of cruelty,” or “bully culture” as I like to call it. Maybe later I will. Just the Bush administration alone could fill up another post. But for now I’ll borrow from Borstein again in this interview with GO NYC magazine.

America’s bully culture is what allowed George Bush to grow up with the kind of self-righteous morality that he has and getting to power. He is the archetypal bully. And so now that he is “the leader of the free world,” it means it’s ok to a bully. Kids look up to their president. They look up at their leaders. They can’t help it.

This past six to eight years all people have seen is George W. Bush. And so it’s ok to be a bully. And what does it mean to be a bully? It means—it’s junior high school! And it’s the culture that says, “be like us; be just like us or we’ll make you want to kill yourself.” And that’s America’s bully culture.

Maybe, though, there’s the possibility of someday having a culture where nobody’s a “freak,” if kids get to hear stories like this from each other.

“You probably have seen me around, and you might think I’m just some weird loner. I’m in foster care; this is like my fifth or sixth school, and when you’re all going home to your parents, my sister and I are going to a group home. It’s hard to keep starting over, so sometimes I don’t even dare to try. But if you see somebody alone all the time, just remember, they’re not necessarily freaky. There’s a story there — a life. And they could probably use a friend.”

There might eventually be more stories like this.

“I was standing in the rotunda with friends of mine, about 30 kids. I noticed this small girl walking by. She had on a big backpack filled with heavy books, and she fell. I just stood there watching and thought to myself, ‘What a loser.’ She just lay there trying to get up. The girl’s face kept getting redder and redder listening to the relentless taunting by my friends. Something clicked. I walked over and lifted her up, picked up her books and brushed the dirt off her arms.”

But first there has to be a different model. Another site I stumbled across was one that apparently accompanies another book that’s going on my “to read” list, Roots of Empathy – Changing the World Child By Child. The website describes the program.

Roots of Empathy is an evidence-based classroom program that has shown dramatic effect in reducing levels of aggression and violence among schoolchildren while raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy. The program reaches elementary school children from Kindergarten to Grade 8.

…The emotional literacy taught in the program lays the foundation for more caring classrooms. When children understand how others feel, they are less likely to hurt each other through bullying, exclusion and violence. In the Roots of Empathy program children learn how to challenge cruelty and injustice. Messages of social inclusion and activities that are consensus building contribute to a culture of caring that changes the tone of the classroom. Research results from national evaluations of Roots of Empathy indicate significant reductions in aggression and increases in pro-social behaviour.

Empathy is a key ingredient to responsible citizenship and responsive parenting. Information on infant safety and development helps children to be more aware of issues of infant vulnerability such as SIDS and Shaken Baby Syndrome. Observations of a loving parent-child relationship give children a model of responsive parenting.

The Roots of Empathy curriculum is comprehensive and attuned to the development and interests of the children. The 639-page curriculum is divided into nine themes, with three classroom sessions supporting each theme (a pre-family session, family visit and post-family visit). Each of the nine themes is further broken down into four streams: Kindergarten, Primary (grades 1-3), Junior (grades 4-6) and Senior (grades 7-8).

And, like “Names,” “Roots” doesn’t focus on bullies, victims, or particular groups.

What is unique about Roots of Empathy is that it does not target bullies or aggressive children; it does not target victims of bullying a narrow spectrum of ages. It takes a universal approach, raising the level of empathy in the entire classroom and across age groups without singling out any individual or group.

Notice how both programs, “Roots of Empathy” and “Names Can Really Hurt Us,” are not one-off programs? It’s not something that can be “taken care of” by having a one-hour assembly once a year, posting a anti-bullying policy or passing legislation. Policies are only obeyed as long as there are teachers or other adults around to enforce them, and some incidents that clearly are acts of bullying may not fit the definition of bullying in a particular policy or law.

Massachusetts legislators are struggling to pass an anti-bullying bill, and getting stuck on a definition.

…Bruce Caley of Quincy noted that one measure, H.453, proposes to define “bullying” as “any written or verbal expression or physical act or gesture or a pattern of behavior intended to cause emotional distress.”

Caley said such broad definitions could ensnare far more people than the traditional schoolyard bully.

“I think we really have to put something in these bills about free speech,” Caley said. “We shouldn’t have any bullying at all, for any reason. It’s just that we should consider whatever ramifications these bills would have.”

In Connecticut, schools risk fines of up to $10,000 if they fail to comply with the state’s anti-bullying laws.

Connecticut’s anti-bullying law was created in 2003 after Daniel Scruggs, a Meriden middle school student, committed suicide. It requires all school districts to track incidents of bullying and to adopt anti-bullying policies. The law was modified in 2006 to require the reporting of bullying incidents on school buses.

And this session, lawmakers are looking to once again tweak the law, creating repercussions for schools that fail to comply. If the bill passes, school districts could be fined a minimum of $2,500 and a maximum of $10,000.

“No school district likes to lose money,” said Sen. Thomas P. Gaffey, D-Meriden, co-chairman of the General Assembly’s Education Committee. “It’s going to be a tough policy by the state legislature when it comes to bullying.”

Policies, laws, and fines are symptoms of a cultural disease, as are bullying and school shootings. If we’re going to be rid of the symptoms, we have to address the disease. “Anti-bully” may be a misnomer. Maybe anti-bias is a better concept.

It is rare that anti-Semitism comes up in “Names,” but Ms. Lipshez-Shapiro explained why an organization devoted to combating that ancient transgression got into the bully business. “At A.D.L., we look at the consequences of being different, at prejudices and stereotyping and discrimination,” she said. “The main reason people are bullied is because they’re different or perceived to be. Our programs are really anti-bias more than anti-bully. Our goal is to teach empathy to perpetrators. A lot of times they have no idea of the power of what they’re doing.”

(Lipshez-Shapiro’s quote also suggests a kind of faith that there’s an abiding core of goodness in most kids, that’s reachable and capable of responding.)

It takes some time and preparation, apparently. The program takes about three months of preparation, and costs up to $5,000 to implement “Names.” A program like “Roots” requires class time and resources as well. But is it worth the time and money if it avoids another shooting? one answer to stopping school shootings doesn’t involve more gun control or more guns in school. If we arm kids with empathy, we stand a change of disarming disaster before the despair builds to the point that another gun is finally loaded.

If we can do that, perhaps the other issues will begin to take care of themselves. But only if we can begin to take care of each other, because it’s the right thing to do.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: