Empathy: The Language of Emotion
By Martha Beach
Every day, a Grade 2 student (let’s call her Rose) repeatedly asks the other girls in her class to play with her. One of those classmates (who we’ll call Meg) gets fed up and complains that Rose’s requests are annoying and no one likes the games she plays. Meg’s mum advises her daughter to take a chance and invite Rose over. The next afternoon, the two little girls spend a couple hours playing together. As Rose is leaving that evening, Meg sees that Rose has a giant smile plastered across her face and she hears Rose’s words of excitement and notices her dancing feet too. Meg understands how gleeful Rose feels, and she feels that glee too.
Empathy—the ability to recognize and understand another person’s feelings—is an extremely important life skill. In English, the word empathy is only about a century old. It is a rough translation of the German word einfuhlung, which means “feeling into.” While empathy may be a relatively new word, it is a basic part of human nature. Such a seemingly simple ability to connect with and tune into another person has enormous sway in our lives: empathy forms the basis for all successful human interaction. We learn this vital skill from parents, caregivers, friends, and role models as infants and children. “If you lose that opportunity to learn emotional literacy during childhood, it has negative impacts,” says Mary Gordon, founder and president of Roots of Empathy, an in-school program that involves observing and learning about empathy through a live mom-and-infant dynamic. “Roots of Empathy uses the mother and baby because of their attachment relationship,” says Gordon. “They are attuned to each other.” But a lack of empathy can have hugely negative impacts on supportive learning environments, friend-making abilities, good mental health, strong relationship skills, and so much more.
In today’s high-tech world, many worry about the impact of technology on our ability to empathize. Sharyn Timerman, a Montreal behaviour specialist and founder of The Early Years, a development centre for parents and kids who experience behaviour issues, says the basic nature of the human being has not changed but technology, along with other factors, has changed the way we learn this vital life skill. “A big element of that change is that both parents are working, kids stay out of the home later and later, kids are left on their own a lot more and the role of technology grows.” Technology now fills the role of a real live friend and playmate.
Kids who get home from school and immediately turn on their consoles or log into the computer are missing out on key social interactions as well as free play that help them learn to read the emotions and body language of others. “It’s not so much that technology has a positive or negative impact on kids—it’s what they’re not doing because of technology that is a problem,” says Gordon. Children should play with their friends in an unstructured environment as often as possible; get outside, kick stones, play in the water. Timerman notices a similar trend (or lack thereof). “Even if they have a friend over, they’re playing video games. They aren’t involved in dramatic play—imaginative, role-playing—with each other,” Timerman says. “They need to have spontaneous, reactive, unidirectional play that helps them learn to be creative. But when kids spend too much down-time on the computer, they’re losing the opportunity to learn developmental skills that allow them to build friend-making skills, creativity, imagination, and empathy,” says Gordon. Free play involves all senses, whereas computer play does not. “There are lots of positive and playful things on a computer, and kids are able to play with each other. I’m not critical of that, but I’m very wary. It needs to be balanced with free time,” Gordon says.
As a teacher, it is not possible to direct or control empathy-related education at home. But it is an important skill to teach in the classroom because it is one that is so important for a supportive learning and teaching environment. “A kid fooling around in class doesn’t understand the role of the teacher. They don’t see and understand how frustrating it can be for the teacher and how the teacher is disappointed that she has been disrupted, and that kids are now laughing and not listening.” Timerman says. “It is not only a lack of empathy that stops learning. Behaviour stops learning.” But because the child doesn’t know how to fully read and understand the emotions of others around him, they don’t realize or don’t care that they are disturbing fellow students and upsetting the teacher.
Empathy is not only about learning how to read and understand another person’s feelings. Learning the language of emotion is a huge part of being successfully empathetic and capable of expressing oneself. “Learning words associated with empathy and emotions helps kids learn to talk about it, it gives them legitimacy to own their emotions so they can share them. It’s about connection and communication,” says Gordon. For example, if a student has the language to communicate with a teacher, they can express their frustration with math or their confusion over a science experiment. This way their teacher is better able to help them. A student can also communicate their joy of learning with their peers, which in turn encourages others to learn. “In a classroom, children may feel afraid to read aloud if they’re having trouble. But with empathy, the class can encourage them. This is why it is important to build their cognitive awareness to experience empathy and emotion,” says Gordon.
Technology certainly plays a huge role in children’s ability to build on and experience empathy in a time where kids live partially in a virtual world. We are at the tail end of the tenth anniversary of Facebook. MediaSmarts, a Canadian not-for-profit charitable organization for digital and media literacy, surveyed almost 5,500 students in Grades 4-11 from across Canada this year and found that almost one-third of students in Grades 4-6 have Facebook (this is in spite of terms of agreement that bar children under 13 from using the site). The number of Facebook accounts rises after Grade 6: from 67 percent in Grade 7 to 95 percent in Grade 11.
Stephanie Christina, a psychologist who works in both private practice and with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, points out that most young people have an online public persona in which they’re engaged. “They’re never off-duty,” says Christina. Before, for example, girls would write in diaries during downtime to help work through thoughts and anxieties. Now they talk, text, post, but it is always through that public persona. “Most girls are hiding weaknesses and insecurities behind that persona. They need that [face-to-face] feedback from other people to realize those insecurities are okay, they are normal. But they aren’t getting that feedback, and if they do, it is negative and from behind a screen,” says Christina. “Empathy develops with attachment to parents, mentors, and friends. But people get caught in the peer web from a young age and therefore don’t develop empathy in the same way.” Kids seem to always be interacting through a lens and this plays into empathy because it’s not a genuine connection. Christina says boys especially seem to be drawn into the online world of gaming. “Boys are shutting down and living in the virtual world. They often have almost no real connection, because possibly the real world is of no interest or too scary. They are disengaging socially, and disengaging academically,” Christina says. “There’s always been that tendency among boys, but technology has just played into it.”
Technology really affects the way students communicate with each other. Instant messaging, texting, and email even though it is almost obsolete in the virtual world of today’s young) don’t allow kids to read others’ emotion. The same 2014 MediaSmarts survey found that almost half (49%) of students in Grade 4 have their own cell phone or access to someone else’s phone on a regular basis. About one quarter (24%) of Grade 4 students, half (52%) of Grade 7 students, and 85% of Grade 11 students have their own cell phones. It also found that 39 percent of students in Grades 4-11 who own cell phones sleep with them in case they get calls or messages during the night. “That is their main form of communication. Because they don’t see the reactions, we worry about their empathy. Some kids just say whatever comes to their heads now, though some don’t. It’s just so much part of their world to have no reaction,” says Christina. “You can’t have empathy when you are just texting—it’s hard to reach out to someone and connect when you aren’t face-to-face,” agrees Timerman. “When we communicate, our words are only 20 percent. The other 80 percent involves body language, tone of voice, facial expression. Because they are not interacting with each other in person, they are not learning to read each other,” says Timerman. “We see it in bullying, especially with girls. Once the face was taken away it got so much nastier and crueler because they couldn’t see the reaction,” adds Christina.
“I don’t really know that it’s fair to say that technology is robbing kids of the chance to learn empathy,” Timerman says. “The basics about humans and the need for empathy haven’t changed. Technology is just running parallel to that need. There are lots of other factors affecting empathy. But when it comes to basic human needs, people teach people. That doesn’t change.” Only humans can help each other learn to empathize, and technology should simply be another way to emotionally connect with another person.
As a teacher, this all may sound fairly foreboding. Talking about emotional literacy, empathy, and proper online conduct are all ways to help improve the situation from within classroom walls. “We are now starting to be aware that this is not all good, so we can soon pull back and fix it. But there will be a bit of a crisis in between,” Christina says. There is no instant fix, but educators should start open and ongoing conversations about feelings to help each student learn to understand themselves and others; frustrations with a project, feelings of inadequacy at work, giddiness at a new friendship, fear of failure or rejection, an untameable sense of excitement at the prospect of something new, satisfaction of a job well done. Technology is undeniably a hugely important part of modern communication, but we can’t let the phone or computer change the fact there are real humans on the other side of that screen.
Martha Beach is a graduate of Ryerson University’s journalism program. Currently, she is a freelance writer and factchecker in Toronto.