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Mindful : April 2014
The moment is seared in Tom Veenstra’s memory. His teenage students—a combined Grade 7 and 8 class at Market Lane Public School in Toronto—are gathered around a large green blanket. The students a re singing a welcome song to a four- month-old baby who, with his parents, will visit the class over the coming year. Veenstra and his students are participating in a progra m called Roots of Empathy, which teaches school-age children how to identify and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others. The baby’s visits help the students learn about compassion. From the minute his mother brought him into the classroom, the infant zeroed in on a shy boy who rarely takes part in class. “As the mom carried him a round the circle,” Veenstra remembers, “the baby was turning and craning his neck to make eye contact with that student. “It was a beautiful moment. There was gentle laughter, and everyone was aware of how the baby was drawn to him. We talked about the fact that we have no idea why, on that day, the baby was attracted to him. But you could just tell that it made him feel so special, and he referred to that many times throughout the year.” Roots of Empathy is an evidence-based classroom program created in 1996 by Canadian educator Mary Gordon. Children up to the 8th grade are introduced to a newborn, usually about three months old, with whom they interact for the yea r. The program aims to develop empathy in children and “change the world, child by child.” Roots of Empathy has reached more than half a million students and has been shown to reduce levels of agg ression among schoolchildren while raising social and emotional competence and increasing empathy. Veenstra has witnessed moments when students from difficult family backgrounds have asked about the Roots of Empathy baby, but he suspects they’re really asking about themselves. “In the questions they ask about the baby’s devel- opment, I see them processing some of the issues they themselves have dealt with,” Veenstra says. “Issues a round abandonment, for example. One child, whose parent opted out of their life early on, asked if you can still build the same neurons if that pa rent hasn’t been involved. The first unit of the program discusses brain development, and the stu- dent asked, ‘What if your parent leaves?’ It provided an opportunity for the Roots of Empathy instructor to step in and say that you can get that kind of love not just from your parents but from anyone who looks out for you and cares for you.” Ca n you teach empathy? Veenstra thinks so, as do several dozen experts in the field. Innate Capacity “It’s more helpful for people to see kindness as a skill they need to practice in order to get better at it,” says Christine Carter, the author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. “In my resea rch it was obvious that doing acts of kindness, and thinking about other people instead of yourself, is the clear road to happiness,” Carter says. “So I started asking my children t wo questions at dinnertime. “ First, I asked my two daughters: What’s one kind thing you did today? And then, what ’s one kind thing somebody else did for you?” “They could come up with kind things they had done, but they couldn’t come up with any kind things that others had done for them. I said to them, seriously? I just drove you all over the county to your activities, I made you dinner and helped with your homework, and you can’t think of anything anyone’s done for you?” That sort of changed their perspective on g ratitude, and a whole series of con- versations started to happen. “As a society, we value happiness but we pursue it through consumption, materialism, a nd accumu- lation. I was just talking to someone from another country and he noticed that on TV, all Americans are so happy. But it’s always about the stuff we have, the food we eat, the drinks we drink.” On top of that, says Carter, we pay too little atten- tion to teaching kindness in relation to happiness— two concepts, in her mind, that are so closely related they’re practically intercha ngeable. The psychological literature has long contained suggestions that our feelings of empathy towa rd others a re feelings that don’t generally lead to action, particularly when that action would cause us to act Is compassion something we only have so much of? Or can we be trained to love more people more of the time? Jennifer Campbell reports. Jennifer Campbell is a freelance writer and editor living in Ottawa. She is editor of two magazines, Ottawa Citizen Style and Diplomat & International Canada. 54 mindful April 2014 compassion