Empathy in Singapore Kids: Let's bring it back!
"Empathy makes us complete. It makes us better people. While we set out time to teach our kids diligence and determination, let us set out a bit of time that allows slow and gentle empathy too."
The head of a reputed school once told me, “Our kids have everything, except that they lack empathy.”
I had noticed it too, but to have the endorsement of someone so experienced emphasized it even further. In a nation that has assigned weeks for kindness and reserved seats for those ‘who need it more’ on public transport, empathy should be a given, except that it’s not.
In fact, the very fact that a reminder is needed on something so humane, suggests that, we as parents and educators, are perhaps spending more time on teaching our kids discipline and diligence, but less time teaching them empathy.
Unfortunately, it is the very same meritocratic mindset that has helped us (and will now help our kids) progress, which leaves us with a lifestyle that de-prioritizes empathy. After all, where is the time for empathy?
Between the classes, enrichment courses and the online engagements? Maybe.
However, though it is possible to feel few emotions on the go, it is more difficult say the same about empathy.
Empathy is subtle. It needs time and it needs introspection. It needs you to slow down and be observant.
It needs you to do away with your own set of knowledge, beliefs and experiences (at least temporarily) to walk in to the shoes of others, and yes, without judging. It needs suspension of disbelief, the kind
we feel while watching Spiderman, when we know it is not real, but we are still ready to believe in it for those 90 minutes.
It’s the same.
So, when someone says they are overwhelmed or depressed or has a different point of view, it’s not ours to judge whether it is right or justified. Empathy is the simple act of accepting someone else’s frame of mind and someone else’s perspective.
It is about understanding our friends and peers. It’s about realizing what makes them feel.
Empathy is a great thing to teach our kids because empathy increases collaborations and decreases acts of ostracizing. It also ensures kind acts and reduces bullying incidents.
Empathy ensures that our kids relate to each other, and feel an increased sense of wellbeing. Overall, empathy reduces stress.
However, there are obstacles to empathy. The ego comes in the way, the lack of time comes in the way and sometimes the prescribed directives come in the way.
We are often told where to empathise. It is either in an old age home or during a calamity, we are told. The seat is reserved for the old, the invalid, the pregnant and the lady with an infant, we are told. So, we train our minds accordingly.
We help out at the old-age home and donate to calamity relief. We get up to allow an old lady to sit (maybe). But, is that all there is to empathy? Would students give up their seat for the able-bodied man who feels unwell, helpless or distraught (unless he has fallen down)?
And for that matter, would they even unplug their earphones, look up from their screens and notice the subtle change of expression on the man’s face or the shift of stance that signals discomfort?
Forget the stranger on the train, would they even recognize if a neighbor is lonely or a friend needs help?
They will, if we tell them about it and if we lead by example.
Empathy is best taught in childhood, and schools do have the ‘Values In Action’ programmes that aim to build socially responsible citizens. I have been a part of the team that taught the programme as well, and I have seen students benefitting from it.
But can a single initiative at school be enough to build a nation of people who care? Can empathy begin and end with the VIA programme? No. Perhaps, we need to add empathy into ordinary things as well.
We have to teach the new generation to notice people again, to notice their worry-lines, to sense their fear and to acknowledge their value at a humane level.
For that we need to notice it ourselves first, and then talk about it with them. We need to bring back the daily conversations, the idle talks and perhaps, we need to bring back the concern about each other’s lives.
A friend once said, “you ask direct questions. Is that polite?” Maybe it’s not. It is rather nosy, to meddle in to someone else’s affairs.
We, as a society, believe in individual spaces these days.
However, in the process, we have stopped being concerned about each other. Empathy can allow a bit of nosiness I think, so that when you notice something amiss, the question, “are you ok?” can be
asked, sometimes even to a complete stranger.
To bring up kids who can empathize, we need more conversations at home and at school, the ones that flow freely and have no agenda. We need 30 minutes of talking to each other and about each other.
We need to hear each other out. In many kindergartens, there is the ritual of ‘circle time,’ where each child talks and the others listen. Maybe it’s time to bring ‘circle time’ to primary and senior schools as well, so that empathy doesn’t get limited to just ‘kindness week’ and to school VIA anymore.
We need people around us who would notice when things are amiss and who would care enough to ask, ‘are you ok?’
In order for that to happen, we need to ask our kids more questions. Questions like, “how did that make you feel,” and “what did you think he/ she felt when this happened?” We need to tell them about our feelings as well.
Empathy makes us complete. It makes us better people. While we set out time to teach our kids diligence and determination, let us set out a bit of time that allows slow and gentle empathy too.
We will then ensure a society that is more accepting of each other.