Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Sultan: A Better Way to Teach Empathy

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Sultan: A Better Way to Teach Empathy

Article excerpt

We teach young children to consider the feelings of others in the hopes that they grow to become empathetic adults. And, yet the glaring absence of empathy among adults is on display every day in news reports and social media feeds.

Psychological research has documented a dramatic decline in self-reported empathy over the past three decades. Researchers suggest this growing empathy deficit may be fueled by several factors, including isolation by social class and chronic stress. When I think about the experiences that have helped me break down my assumptions and increased my capacity for understanding, I wonder if we have been teaching empathy all wrong.

Often, we tell children how another person might feel or react, but the most powerful lessons come from listening, witnessing and doing. Perhaps we have to let children experience more of what we want to protect them from. Perhaps those experiences are what make them stronger and kinder. These are the experiences that have most impacted my ability to empathize:

1. Spending time in a place that unsettled me.

As a young reporter, I spent two months in a summer school session observing a gifted teacher trying to help remedial elementary school students learn to read. The students lived in one of the poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods in our metro area. Those months completely changed the way I thought about poverty in this country. It's one thing to read about extreme poverty; it's another to stay for longer than a short visit. I've often wondered what would happen if every middle class and wealthy American had to spend a few weeks in the same environment a child born into extreme poverty does. How would this change our policy debates?

2. Listening to stories.

I've met refugee families from all parts of the world. Listening to stories of the lives they left behind and how they got here made debates about immigration seem more personal and real.

3. Teaching.

It wasn't until I spent an entire day teaching middle-schoolers that I truly appreciated how difficult that job is. …

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