The meaning of empathy

The biggest challenge for educators is that they are all adults. Their clients, if we playfully use the business model for education in passing, are children. Adults and children are akin to two species—they have little in common. They are not natural allies; rather, they regard each other with distrust and suspicion. On top of this, the product in our business model is also children, educated, cultured and civilised children. 

No wonder adults’ imaginations fail them in their attempt to deal with children. No wonder they have to train so hard, work so hard, worry so much, remain tense, in their dealings with children. Adults know more about the workings of air and sky, outer space and ocean depths, than they know of what children are.

And yet, curious fact, every adult has been a child once. If we use the metaphor of a different species, each adult is an exemplar of the process of evolution where they emerge from one state into another and then break the bond. How should we ensure that we can stay in touch with the previous stage or avatar that we were? How should we empathise with the child—empathise in its dictionary meaning of putting ourselves in the shoes of? How does one possibly feel like a child again—that creature who is merely zero to eighteen, when one is in one’s thirties, forties, fifties or sixties?  

Here are the ways.

First. Stop playing the role of “the figure of authority.” It is just a role. Even at the best of time, when you are habituated to saying, “this role has to be played,” you are probably wrong. There are many other ways to rule and administer, to control and to discipline. Management specialists tell us that even in a corporation, authoritarianism, or “boss management” is not a good leadership style. Interactive techniques and democratic processes are guaranteed to be more successful in getting your, the boss’s or manager’s, job done. That’s with adults. With children, you can calculate a further success several times greater by using non-authoritarian tactics. So, in case you thought that playing the role of supreme authority was essential and that’s why you did it, you can relax because there is no need to play the role.

I feel like telling you about my mother. She was beautiful, charming, elegant, a sensitive soul. She had been married at sixteen, her studies cut short, and become a mother at twenty. Somewhere along the line she had picked up what seemed to her an unalterable truth: an adult had to be a figure of authority to the child. Consequently, from the time I knew her, from her at 20 years to her at 85, she acted out the role of a stern figure who was wise and firm, who seldom smiled and never laughed, who could be counted on to advise and support, who knew more than she conveyed, who had secrets she could never share, who was doomed to be always the weary head that wore the crown.

I say all this humorously now, but while growing up, how I wished she could be happy and playful, talk more, share more, laugh a little and joke even once. I knew she was all these things inside. But it was as if she had a script in hand and that told her to play this role of a strict and unbending mother-figure.

Many teachers are like this. They are perfectly sensitive and humane individuals inside but in their classes and with their students, they suspend their better judgement and play-act as if they were forbidden to be themselves.

Stop playing that role.

Second. Refresh your mind about children. Even if you are in your twenties and not your sixties, you may have already forgotten how you felt, what you thought, and why you worried about (now, in retrospect) trifles, when you were a child. There may be some ages you cannot remember at all, some you can remember very selectively, and many that you would rather blot out even further, and completely. Whatever the case, if now your work is with children, it behooves you to do some professional work. The world is teeming with stories about children, artistic depictions of them, and theories and hypotheses about them. Acquaint yourself with these.

I sat in an outdoor park-like place today with water fountains and benches. Because it is a serene surroundings and today was a nice day, many children were playing around. Their parents sat among themselves and the children formed knots and groups that formed and un-formed, doing some things together, some not. I could overhear some of their talk. Without going into detailed reconstructions, suffice it to say that nothing that two, say, eight-year old boys were saying to each other bore the slightest resemblance to adult talk. They inhabited another world.

If you read portions of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, you cannot help but feel your hair stand  on end with the sheer intensity of empathy she displays for her two seven-year old characters, Rahel and Estha. Their preoccupations, their worries and insecurities, their need for love, their pleasures and their longings—they are truly from outer space and the depths of the ocean. Please simply pick up the book for a few hours, and be transported to this distant world.

Very few adults can thus reconstitute a child’s world—but enough for us to not have an excuse for not picking up their books. My very favourite is Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones, in which an adult Mr Watts takes over the informal teaching of young Pacific Islanders after a war, and as he reads day after day from Great Expectations, each child processes the story being read differently, each entering their own imaginary world. Old classics, such as Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White force you to suspend disbelief in a fundamental way and share in the child’s—apparently—experience of animals speaking. And what about Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH? That unforgettable story by Robert O’Brien of rats and mice doing brilliant things? All fantasy literature requires you to seriously consider that, adult though you may be, you don’t know everything. There are some things—many things—that children know readier and better than you do.

This, I cannot emphasise enough, is the big,important lesson in empathy to be learnt by adults. “Adulthood” does not mean superior knowledge of all kinds, all the time, over “childhood.” The most ordinary child, it’s probably no exaggeration to say, has a more vivid imagination than the most poetic adult.

The third way is to play the role of learner. 

The fourth way is to understand the huge, profound meaning of “play” itself.

But these deserve a blog to themselves. Look out for my next one very soon!

- Nita Kumar, Director


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