Empathy as the new literacy

Peter Bazalgette in “The Empathy Instinct” argues that, as part of an Empathy Charter, every parent needs to understand the inestimable value of intimate encounters…they should appreciate the corrosion of healthy, emotional development that comes with the always-on distraction of the mobile device…with school behaviour codes [being] built on the principles of the empathy instinct.

So what are the critical stages for nurturing our children and how can we, as a society and a community, ensure they are more widely understood and cultivated?

Martin Hoffman, a clinical psychologist at New York University, has identified five key states which reflect the primary elements of empathy:

1. A new born baby reactively crying to another baby’s distress: emotional contagion.

2. A child responding to another child’s emotions as if they are their own.

3. A child understanding the upset is not their own but reacting as if it is – leading an upset child to our own mother.

4. Identifying feelings as separate from our own.

5. Developing a sense of self, of others and the relationship between the two.

Babies seem to have an inherent sense of fairness, of what is just. As our discoveries in neuroscience and genetics develop, we learn the critical importance of nurturing the empathy instinct which each child is born with. Children need to be loved to stay loving and also exposed to empathic encounters if we want to sustain and extend their sense of morality.

In our own home, we practise these empathic encounters through ‘reflective listening’, a tool proposed by Noel Janis-Norton in a book published in 2012 (Calmer, Easier and Happier Parenting). The tool comprises four steps which aim to promote a more sympathetic response to a child. First, you put aside your own wishes as an adult, then you stop what you are doing, engage with the child. Next, you imagine what the child is feeling by acknowledging these emotions and finally, you support the child’s wishes, even through the use of imagination or fantasy. However, in the case of more anti-social behaviour, we also ensure the perspective of the harmed child is considered, since discussing the consequences of a child’s actions is key to moral development, which in turn, cultivates the empathy instinct and builds key social connections.

In 2016, David Cameron referred to the critical findings in neuroscience over the previous ten years and pointed to the significance of the vast majority of brain synapses being developed in our first two years of life. He said “destinies can be altered for good or ill in the window of opportunity.”

One way in which this window of opportunity is being seized in the UK is through the introduction of Ashoka, an international education movement which talks about the cultivation of empathy, teamwork, leadership and changemaking in school students.


In Ashoka’s words, empathy is foundational to the ability to resolve conflict, collaborate in teams, align interests, listen effectively, and make decisions where there are no rules or precedents—to solve problems and drive change.

Ashoka’s Empathy Initiative is a collaborative platform for social entrepreneurs, educators, and concerned citizens whose ideas and talents can contribute to the creation of a world where every child practices empathy. Creativity is key to the process, with the arts largely contributing to the ideas the children play with and develop.

Empathy is one outcome, but so is compassion, something Sir Ken Robinson regards as being “the executive wing of empathy. It’s one thing to empathise…something else to do something about it. Compassion is the…cultural glue that holds us together as communities.”

Let us continue to stand firm against adversity, be it personal or related to wider tragedy and seek to nurture our children’s empathy instinct to enable them to be resilient, compassionate and self aware as they encounter challenging times ahead.

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