Focusing on Empathy

By: Neil Mufson
As I have thought over the last year or so about the many divisions that exist in our country, I have come to believe that there is something important we parents and educators must do for the sake of our children and the future of our world: a better job of teaching empathy. The reprehensible and dispiriting expression of hate that we witnessed a few weeks ago in Charlottesville only strengthened my belief about the need to find a starting point. After all, Martin Luther King, Jr. warned us that “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”    
I have always thought, as part of our national compact, that our citizenry recognized individuals’ rights should end when they infringe on the rights of others or when they clearly are counter to the common good. However, we are living in an increasingly narcissistic, relativistic, angry age that has never been more technologically connected yet more humanly distant. The disgraceful and scary scenes we witnessed this summer of racial, ethnic, and religious hatred and the assertion of white supremacy and “nationalism”; the political chasm that has revealed itself; the abrasive, loud, rude, and disrespectful rhetoric that passes for public discourse and acceptable treatment of others — all suggest that our society’s spine and spirit are badly broken. It can be difficult to see how our nation as a whole will be led to reconciliation, healing, and growth. Yet I believe each of us can do much in our own corners of this big world to counteract these odious undercurrents by modeling kindness and by helping our children develop empathy. 
This summer our faculty read the book Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World by Michele BorbaIt makes the point that empathy can and has to be taught and modeled. By directing kids to be able to tune in to and recognize feelings; by focusing more on character and less on external achievement; by helping children understand others’ perspectives; and by fostering the development of a moral imagination that can conceive of alternatives, we can lay the foundation for more fulfilling, more ethical, healthier individual lives and greater community, even societal, cohesion. Perhaps through empathy and kindness our country can even reclaim its resolve and common purpose.    
Borba’s book is at once theoretical and very practical. While she makes the case that “stretching your kids’ caring and ‘helping’ muscles must be ongoing,” she provides very concrete steps parents and teachers can take “to help our children become good, caring people [which] also gives them a huge edge at happiness and success.” This resonates with what I see as the deepest mission of The Country School: to partner with parents to raise good people who are ready to create future opportunities in a humane way.
If you would like to join me and a group of parents to read and discuss Unselfie, please send me an email ( Your interest will help further the work of the faculty as it focuses this year on growing our children’s “empathy advantage.” One of the strengths of our school has always been that our mission extends far beyond academics. I welcome your participation in helping us realize that mission in 2017-18. Welcome back to school!

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