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Photo: Roots of Empathy

Roots of Empathy: Where Children Learn the Language of Getting Along

As founder of the groundbreaking Roots of Empathy program and author of the bestselling book by the same name, Mary Gordon—educator, social entrepreneur and parenting expert—has spent much of her adult life advocating for empathy as the quality most integral to solving conflict: the best “peace pill” the world has ever known.

One might think a life’s work focused on ending humans’ inhumanity to other humans arose out of a place of sweetness and light, born of loving kindness. But no.

“Babies love without borders or definitions, and they respond intuitively to love, which makes them perfect transmitters of empathy.” — Mary Gordon, founder/president, Roots of Empathy
“It was born out of rage,” Gordon says. “It was born because I swore and cried from frustration at the generational violence I was encountering.”

Prior to the time of this pound-the-steering-wheel moment, Gordon had been working as a kindergarten teacher in Toronto. In that role, she saw firsthand high levels of domestic violence and child abuse, and knew intimately the damage already done to children before they even got to kindergarten.

Mary Gordon / Photo: Will Austin

Children came into her classroom “wearing their wounds in their behavior,” she says. Learning was hard for them, as was simply getting along with their classmates. From the day they were born, these children were swimming upstream, and the idea that a child’s circumstances at birth would determine their destiny was an idea she found “vicious and unfair.”

In working to address the violence, she realized that the common thread in all that suffering, the common denominator of violence, aggression and cruelty of all kinds, is the absence of empathy. Her first social innovation (1996) was to start Canada’s first Parenting Centers in schools, which later became public policy, to coach young parents in what babies and young children needed.

One day, she visited the illegal boarding house where one of her young moms lived. The young woman came to the door with her face bruised, her eyebrow gashed where her boyfriend had punched her glasses into her eye and her new little baby girl in her arms. Another little girl, a toddler, clung to her mother’s leg.

“I felt such despair when I saw that and cried from frustration all the way home, knowing that these little girls and this young woman deserved so much more. But her mother had been abused—and we know that story, right? I decided on the way home, ‘OK, I’m going to break this intergenerational cycle and bring the attachment relationship to school so those two little girls and every other little person who goes to school will have an opportunity to see one version of love.

“There’s no one right way to be a parent, but children know when they’re in the presence of love,” Gordon says. “I wanted to put another track down in children’s brains of what was possible.”

Gordon describes the attachment relationship—the child’s first deep connection to a significant, reliable person—as the “secret sauce” in being able to create a more caring, empathetic world. The roots of empathy, the realization of human potential—all that we wish for in the world—are in this first relationship, she writes in Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child.

In these times especially, Gordon says, there is a yearning for empathy because our common humanity is the connection we need most during fraught times. It can’t be taught, but neuroscience tells us empathy can be caught.

Empathy and solidarity grow in the Roots of Empathy classroom. Differences dissolve as children discover that we all share the same feelings regardless of age, gender, religion, race, nationality, language or income and those feelings unite us.

“When you are immersed in an experience where mirror neurons can be at play and you can see, feel, hear, maybe even touch a demonstration of empathy or kindness, you have the capacity to develop that same empathy in your own brain,” Gordon says. She set about developing a novel way to expose children to the contagion of empathy and turned to humanity’s best little professors in graduate-level openheartedness: babies.

At the heart of the Roots of Empathy program, designed for children from kindergarten age to high school age, and its younger sibling, Seeds of Empathy, for 3 to 5-year-olds in early learning settings, is a baby. Babies love without borders or definitions, Gordon says, and they respond intuitively to love, which makes them perfect transmitters of empathy.

Here’s how it works. The 2- to 4-month-old infant and parent, chosen from the community, visit the classroom every three weeks over a school year along with a Roots of Empathy instructor who coaches the children to observe the baby’s development and identify the baby’s feelings. The vulnerable baby is the “teacher” (and wears a little tee shirt that says so), the parent is the “expert,” the ROE instructor is the coach and the children are the “changers,” learning the vocabulary of feelings and developing the capacity to recognize them in themselves and others.

Seeing the Seed Take Root

Children who participate in the Roots of Empathy program sometimes are seeing a loving parent-child relationship for the first time, says Mary Gordon, the program’s founder. She tells of one boy who had been in foster care for years and more group homes than he could count, after having seen his mother murdered in front of him when he was 4.

He was in eighth grade, trying hard to appear aloof and unaffected, cultivating as much of a dangerous look as he could manage, with a shaved head, a ponytail on top and a tattoo at the base of his skull.

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“If you don’t have a word for something,” Gordon says, “you can’t think of it. We give the children a language for their feelings and also real, relaxed, supportive opportunities over a whole school year to relate to the feelings of the baby, to anchor that awareness in themselves. And we have a dialogue over the whole year about recognizing those feelings in their friends.”

The babies are chosen not by the education level of the mothers or by socioeconomics, but through a home visit to orient the parent to the program and to make sure that the parent and child manifest a secure attachment. For some children in the program, this is the first such parent-child bond they’ve ever encountered.

The program’s core includes neuroscience, in which the children learn that love grows brains. Rather than being told this, the children can see for themselves how the baby lights up at the parent’s empathic, nurturing interactions with the infant. Another element at the core is the children’s exploration of the baby’s temperament. As they move from observing the baby’s temperament to a discussion of their own, they begin to understand that their classmates and even their parents will have different emotional reactions to situations.

“It’s sad to me, but teachers don’t really know this work about temperament,” Gordon says. “One of the workshops I give most around the world is on temperaments, explaining to teachers that not all of the little people in their class can sit at a desk for an hour at a time, and if you understand where they’re coming from, you can help them get with the game.”

Central to Roots of Empathy is the development of a vocabulary for feelings, so that the children learn to use art, music, storytelling or other means to communicate, “I feel sad” or “I feel so angry,” rather than striking out or hiding away. The children learn the principle of authentic communication, meaning that the adults in the program honestly reveal their feelings and don’t ask questions to which they already know the answers.

“Our instructors don’t judge or say, ‘Good answer, Johnny.’ And they never ask the child whose hand shoots up first to share—they wait for the seventh person,” she says. “We aren’t rewarding being able to quickly get your brain and mouth in gear. We want children to genuinely have something to say when they put up their hand and not answer to get an adult to acknowledge them. We want them to consider what they’re saying and then acknowledge themselves.”

5-year-olds are coached to take the perspective of “their” Roots of Empathy Baby. Perspective-taking is the first step in any conflict resolution, laying the groundwork for children to help more and hurt less.

Roots of Empathy is grounded in social inclusion, recognizing that every human has a deep need to be heard, seen and to belong. The program creates an environment where everyone has a voice, where children break down barriers and where the classrooms become a microcosm of democracy and collaboration.

“What we have seen all over the world where we have offered our programs is a reduction in aggression, violence and bullying,” Gordon says. “We have rock solid international research that supports that and tons of anecdotal evidence.” The Roots of Empathy classroom is creating children with empathic ethics and a sense of responsibility to each other, she says—citizens of the world.

Roots of Empathy began with a pilot in Toronto, Ontario, in 1996, and has expanded to every province in Canada and 13 other countries, and is delivered in seven languages. In Canada, it is funded under the umbrella of mental health, social and emotional learning or bullying prevention. In Canada and in New Zealand, the program is doing deep work with indigenous people, trying to undo some of the damage done by decades of colonization and neglect. Throughout the world, funding comes from various sources—foundations, philanthropists and government entities. Funding in the U.S. is a challenge, she says, as is finding families with sufficient family leave time to be able to bring their babies into the program.

“It’s not so hard, really, to develop empathy in children,” she says. “It’s not so hard to eliminate cruelty of all kinds, which includes violence and bullying. It’s not hard. We’ve done it. What is hard, is to get the commitment that you care about that.”


RESOURCES

K.C. Compton worked as a reporter, editor and columnist for newspapers throughout the Rocky Mountain region for 20 years before moving to the Kansas City area as an editor for Mother Earth News. She has been in Seattle since 2016, enjoying life as a freelance and contract writer and editor.

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