Saturday, November 23, 2013

A new definition of kindness and empathy? (on educating children)

Today's version of the Toronto Star has several articles on kindness and empathy. The feature article appears on the front page of the "Insight" section. The title of the print version is "Kindness: A fledgling movement aims to instil empathy and make us a kinder, gentler, society." The online version is How to fight meanness? Try a bit of kind.1

The article is written by education reporter Louise Brown. The gist of the article is that we need to teach empathy and kindness2 and perhaps the schools should be involved. But the main teachers should be parents.
But there is a broader kindness movement emerging across the globe — think random acts of kindness, paying it forward — and experts say that adults must take the lead.

"Empathy is like sex education — it’s far too critical to leave to schools alone, but too many parents don’t know how to start the conversation," says Gordon, who has a doctorate in family counselling and has run parenting workshops for 17 years. When parents started asking about empathy, she designed Making Mealtimes Meaningful, a series of cue cards to help jump-start dinnertime discussions about empathy, bullying, peer pressure. UNICEF and Maple Leaf Foods sponsored the project ...
Now that's an interesting concept. You start by making your family sit down to a meal and then pull out cue cards to remind you that you need to teach your children about empathy and kindness. I can just see it now. When your adolescent children start whining about the fact that you already discussed bullying five times in the past month, you can strap them in their chairs and put a gag in their mouths to make sure they listen to your lecture on empathy. I'm sure that will work.

Louise Brown decided to highlight one particular parent ....
Stefanie Hatcher is a good example of a parent who wants to embed kindness in her family. She knows they must all make time for each other, so she and her husband ban technology on weekday evenings in their North Toronto home — no TV, no laptops or smart phones for either parent and their Grade 7 son or Grade 1 daughter.

"We all get so desensitized when we’re looking at our devices," says Hatcher, "so putting them down means I actually see that you’re happy or sad, and I actually ask you about the best and worst part of your day."

This is a recurring theme in the fledgling kindness movement — less digital distance, more face-to-face exchanges.
Why would she have to "ban" TV, computers, and smart phones? Presumably it's because her children want to watch TV and use their computers and cell phones. Right?

So, Stephanie Hatcher thinks that forcing her children do something they do not want to do is a good way to teach kindness and empathy? Has somebody recently re-defined these words?
Hatcher’s extended family gave this approach a stab this summer at their shared cottage — aunts and uncles agreed not to use cellphones, especially when the kids were around. "It sends the wrong message when you’re in one of the most beautiful parts of the world and you’re staring at your devices."
Maybe I'm old-fashioned but I think we should be teaching responsible use of technology. I want children to see adults using cellphones in a responsible manner and I expect children to also use their cellphones responsibly. That means they can text their friends from time to time even when they are at the cottage. The problem with teaching responsible use of anything is that you also have to experience irresponsible use from time to time before the lesson sinks in. That's part of the learning process.

Banning your children's use of cellphones and making sure that your children never see adults using cellphones is likely to be about as successful as advocating no sex before marriage. Or no drinking until you are 19 years old.3

I'm not sure what this has to do with teaching kindness and empathy. It's too bad that Louise Brown didn't interview a group of anonymous children from similar families to see what they thought of parents who imposed such restrictions. I wonder if they would see this as a good lesson in empathy?
She also tries to bring the family together for dinner a few times a week because "the world is too fast; sitting down together is not a priority. We’re trying to make it a priority as often as we can."
Lot's of people seem to think that making people sit down to a meal when they would prefer to do something else is a good idea. I've never understood this concept. To me, mealtime is the worst possible time to discuss controversial topics with children and it's certainly the very worst time to antagonize them and make them angry.

How many of you have raised children? Do you remember when they were adolescents and teenagers? Did you ever make them sit down at a meal and quiz them by asking "How was your day?" How did that work out?4
The family has also started going to church, "even though I’m by no stretch religious. But I want my kids to hear that message of kindness reinforced by another voice."
Really? Stephanie Hatcher is not religious but she makes her children go to church and listen to religious leaders talk about gods and their version of "kindness"?5 This might be a good way to teach her children about hypocrisy but I don't see how it could be teaching them about respect and responsibility. Or about kindness and empathy.
To underscore how important it is for grown-ups to set an example, psychology professor Debra Pepler suggests every Canadian adult should watch Children See, Children Do, a 90-second public-service clip from Australia that shows children variously mimicking an adult who is giving another adult the finger; being racist to a sales clerk; and walking by a mother struggling with spilled groceries and a stroller without offering to lend a hand.
I agree. Teaching by example is the best way to show children what kind of behavior is acceptable and what is not acceptable. If your goal is to teach empathy, then the last thing that parents should do is demonstrate that they do not respect the views and desires of others but insist on imposing their own views on their children and other adults who come into contact with their children. That sends exactly the wrong message.

Now, having said that, there certainly are times when adults have to take charge and insist on certain rules for children. Nobody denies that.

My generation grew up with television sitcoms like Leave it to beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, and Father knows best (yes, really). Most of you have no idea of the standards that were considered acceptable in the 1950s.


Ironically, the children who watched these shows grew up to be a very radical bunch of teenagers and young adults who looked nothing like the children in the sitcoms. I don't think that the father who knows best would have been very comfortable at Woodstock or protesting in Chicago in 1968.

My wife and I were determined to raise our children in a very different manner. We were very much influenced by an educator named Alexander Sutherland Neill (1883–1973) who founded a school called "Summerhill School" in England. He's the author of a famous book called Freedom Not License. The Wikipedia article has a good description of his philosophy.
Neill believed that the happiness of the child should be the paramount consideration in decisions about the child's upbringing, and that this happiness grew from a sense of personal freedom. He felt that deprivation of this sense of freedom during childhood, and the consequent unhappiness experienced by the repressed child, was responsible for many of the psychological disorders of adulthood. Neill's ideas, which tried to help children achieve self-determination and encouraged critical thinking rather than blind obedience, were seen as backward, radical, or at best, controversial.

Many of Neill's ideas are widely accepted today, although there are still many more "traditional" thinkers within the educational establishment who regard Neill's ideas as threatening the existing social order, and are therefore controversial.
Somehow, I don't think that this philosophy is shared by Stephanie Hatcher (or Louise Brown, for that matter).

Now, as it turns out, when we started raising our own children it proved to be a real challenge to implement Neil's ideas wholeheartedly. We ended up with a lot more "license" than Neil advocated. Nevertheless, our family looked very different from the ones on the 1950s sitcoms.

If you think that was radical, you ought to see the household of our grandchildren! Ozzie and Harriet would have a fit. So would Stephanie Hatcher 'cause our three-year-old granddaughter uses her iPad on week nights. Her one-year-old brother is just learning to Skype his grandparents. He's allowed to do it on week days.

The school my granddaughter attends [The Venice Garden Preschool] would make A.S. Neil proud. It's how you are supposed to teach kindness and empathy.

I don't know why modern parents would want to revert to the 1950s style of child raising. And I certainly don't know why they think this is a good way of teaching kindness and empathy. What are they thinking?

I'm having a discussion about the baby boomer generation on another thread [Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it]. Some Gen-X people are sick and tired of hearing from baby boomers like me who tell who them about all the lessons we learned and events we experienced while growing up. They won't like it when I post this video even though it's very relevant.



1. Does anyone know why they do this? Why is the title of the online version often different from that of the print version?

2. For those of us who grew up in the 1960s, the idea that teaching kindness and empathy (and love) is a "fledgling movement" seems, how shall we say it, .... very stupid.

3. That's the legal drinking age in Ontario.

4. Don't misunderstand. I believe you can train children to sit politely around a table and answer the question. You can also train dogs to fetch sticks.

5. I hope it's not a Roman Catholic church or one run by Christian fundamentalists. I'm not sure I want my children exposed to their view of kindness. I wonder if one of the cue cards is "homophobia"? I wonder if their mealtime conversation conflicts with what they might hear in their church. How does that work out?

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