Cultivating empathy: some keys to help children open up to otherness


Scientific publications, books, magazines, newspapers, radio, social networks… Impossible not to note the omnipresence of the word empathy. Not a day indeed, not a week without him appearing. Should we see in this the testimony of a questioning society at a time when the temptation to extremism and radicalization is growing?

Should we see in this the signs of a society where the presence, recognition and acceptance of others generates lively debates, even tensions when it is not exclusion? Or rather those of an individualistic society – governed by consumption – on the way to becoming “liquid” or even the advent of the “time of the tribes” , sounding the death knell for institutions and structuring ideologies?

Also, each time the term empathy is put forward, it is evident that the question of social ties is undergoing a form of attrition when it is not quite simply in danger of being at half mast. All things considered, each time this term is used, it is to mean something of the order of its transformation, its weakening or even its decay.

Emotional Understanding

This plethoric use is therefore a signal in the face of the dangers that threaten the methods of “living together”, of “commoning” in a world where the promises of the ideologies of the 20th century  have not been kept. Religious and/or political, these great transcendences constituted the cement of “being”, of “living” and “doing” together, they projected individuals towards better futures.

However, in recent decades, this cement has been losing its quality. It no longer allows as much openness towards the other and even less the understanding of these others different from oneself often relegated to the status of danger.

Are our societies lacking in empathy? Would we be empathetic first, and sometimes only, towards those who resemble us, thus putting at a distance our moral responsibility with regard to the foreigner (in the etymological sense of “who is not of the family, of the country” )? If so, shouldn’t “open empathy” – this disposition to think of oneself “as another” – be included in the curricula of the school of the Republic?

Empathy, as everyone knows, is the idea that we can “put ourselves in another person’s shoes” in order to understand them. But, if empathy is “putting yourself in the place of the other…”, where will the other be able to put themselves when I’m going to take their place, would argue the somewhat teasing minds?

All in all, if empathy is not so simple to define, it is nevertheless possible to say that it is plural and that it is similar to a form of nesting doll composed of 3 envelopes.

  • The first envelope, called emotional empathy , develops around a year. From this age, thanks to the promptings of those around them, children gradually learn to recognize and identify the emotions on the faces of others.
  • A second envelope, designated cognitive empathy , is implemented around 2/3 years. The child then opens up to the world beyond the restricted circle of the family and his close entourage. It is during this period that the little one discovers the pleasure of imitating the people around him: his parents, his teachers, his brothers and sisters… By playing “act as if”, he realizes that the others may think differently than him.
  • A third envelope, called mature empathy , develops from the age of 6/7. At this age, the child may not agree with his parents, his brothers and sisters, his classmates… but above all he says why he does not agree. It’s not like at 2 or 3 years old where he was just able to say no to…exist. There he is ready to justify himself, even to make pleadings, do you want some here… And it is these contradictory debates at home, at school, on the basketball court, in the neighborhood… which allow him to understand what others feel, think and therefore to be able to see the world through the eyes of others.

But empathy can also hold some surprises. Research shows, for example, that we would spontaneously tend to be only empathetic towards loved ones. A trend I call “closed empathy”. This form of exclusive tie to one’s group of affiliation can take on the appearance of a community between oneself and lead to intolerance likely to result in extreme and deleterious behavior, the disastrous consequences of which are well known.

This is why it is necessary to develop and, if possible, from an early age, an “open empathy” to those who look like us as well as to those who, a priori, do not look like us.

Skills to develop

This “open empathy” cannot be decreed through speeches. We have to create the conditions. It goes through education . And it is precisely this type of education that I have been experimenting with for the past twenty years, first with juvenile delinquents , in order to put them back in the stirrup of a peaceful relationship with others, then with students, to teach them to navigate smoothly and, why not, happily in the social worlds, all this while making sure to always respect these three components in a consubstantial way.

Component 1: Observing others doing and doing in turn

How did the boxer Mohamed Ali win his greatest fights? Well not only by flying and dancing like a butterfly in the ring, but also by knowing how to dodge the blows. And that, he learned by practicing but also by watching others do it. Research does not say otherwise: the majority of learning is done by observing the behavior of others, in other words by direct or indirect imitation .

Component 2: Practicing together to enter into emotional empathy

To be able to enter into emotional empathy, you need presence, you need body, sometimes you have to sweat together like on a sports field. Here too, the science is very clear: the development of emotional empathy requires physical presence in the same space . That is to say face-to-face, live. Which, by the way, does not allow learning in front of screens.

Component 3: Putting words to emotions and talking about them

But why put words to his emotions and talk about them? Again, science proves that the more we would be able to feel, live and precisely name our emotions, the less violent we would be , the more we would be willing to be open to others and therefore to understand them.

Science proves that the more we would be able to feel, to name our emotions precisely, the less violent we would be. Shutterstock

Observing others, working together, putting emotions into words, three components necessary to cultivate “open empathy” that the practical situation of the “musketeer game” illustrates perfectly.
“The game of the musketeers” consists of playing together two or three teams of four players. In each team, the players have a difficult position to hold. One has, for example, arms outstretched parallel to the ground, the other is in the chair, leaning against a wall, the third is in the abdominal sheathing position and the fourth (the Joker) runs according to a predefined route. The first three players can, if necessary, challenge the Joker to be replaced. The team that holds all positions the longest wins the round. An important point to develop empathy optimally: during the game, the players must be placed in such a way that they can observe each other in order to be able to spot the partner about to flinch at risk to lose his team. Organized in this way,
This game, initiated in prison with juvenile delinquents, was subsequently declined in schools, as a “game of accounting musketeers” to learn mathematics and then as a “game of literate musketeers” in the context of French lessons, history-geography, language… One more point, in order to develop open empathy more precisely, the educator, the teacher, the trainer… will ensure that the participants change teams regularly.

Like all the educational scenarios deployed within the framework of various programs, the “game of the musketeers” was designed to learn to live in oneself the experience of others , a sine qua non for cultivating “open empathy”.

An effort to get out of oneself

And now what do we do? Who is responsible for this education? To families? At school ? To the media?…

In families, a more comprehensive education of each is at work in many homes. Yes, in families we talk to each other more; yes, in families we talk more about things. It explodes sometimes, but the tendency is to listen and understand, that is to say to take into consideration the point of view of others.

The school has also begun its revolution in this area since it has introduced the term empathy into official texts since 2015. Obviously, it will still take time for teaching habits to change, but it is on the right track. .

A very last point by way of conclusion. Insofar as empathy requires an effort to think in order to get out of oneself, out of one’s immediate desire, in order to take the point of view of others, this skill makes it possible, among other things, to learn to defer one’s instinctual pleasure in order to be part of a process of humanization which always makes the Other a fellow man.

Author Bio: Omar Zanna is a University Professor in Sociology at Le Mans University