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The Empathy Deficit (Blog Action Day)

The theme for this year's Blog Action Day is poverty. Bloggers around the world are dedicating their posts today to this important topic. On the morning after the night before in Canadian politics and in the wake of the upcoming U.S. election, I think it is appropriate to talk about the Empathy Deficit in North American society and how it is preventing us from making poverty history.

Some statistics:

  • Every 3 seconds a child dies of extreme poverty

  • Over 1 billion people around the world live on less than $1 a day

  • More than 1 million Canadian children are living in poverty

According to the Make Poverty History campaign:
Poverty is a violation of human rights on a massive scale. In 2000 all members of the United Nations committed to "spare no effort" in tackling poverty by adopting the Millennium Declaration. Governments also launched the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to meet minimum targets to reduce poverty, hunger, illiteracy, discrimination against women, and environmental degradation by 2015. But the pace of action is too slow. If we hold the present course, we will fail to meet these targets. And the poor will pay the price.

The Great Empathy Deficit

Why do we care so little? Why are so few people willing to do something about poverty? And why did we Canadians yesterday yet again vote in a government that does so little to ensure progress on the issue of poverty and instead focuses on mythical "savings" that it brings to average families. It is because of an Empathy Deficit. Barack Obama talks about this deficit in his speech on Martin Luther King Day:
Unity is the great need of the hour – the great need of this hour. Not because it sounds pleasant or because it makes us feel good, but because it’s the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exists in this country.

I’m not talking about a budget deficit. I’m not talking about a trade deficit. I’m not talking about a deficit of good ideas or new plans.

I’m talking about a moral deficit. I’m talking about an empathy deficit. I’m taking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother’s keeper; we are our sister’s keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.

We have an empathy deficit when we’re still sending our children down corridors of shame – schools in the forgotten corners of America where the color of your skin still affects the content of your education.

We have a deficit when CEOs are making more in ten minutes than some workers make in ten months; when families lose their homes so that lenders make a profit; when mothers can’t afford a doctor when their children get sick.

We have a deficit in this country when there is Scooter Libby justice for some and Jena justice for others; when our children see nooses hanging from a schoolyard tree today, in the present, in the twenty-first century.

We have a deficit when homeless veterans sleep on the streets of our cities; when innocents are slaughtered in the deserts of Darfur; when young Americans serve tour after tour of duty in a war that should’ve never been authorized and never been waged.

And we have a deficit when it takes a breach in our levees to reveal a breach in our compassion; when it takes a terrible storm to reveal the hungry that God calls on us to feed; the sick He calls on us to care for; the least of these He commands that we treat as our own.

So we have a deficit to close. We have walls – barriers to justice and equality – that must come down. And to do this, we know that unity is the great need of this hour.

In Canada, our own Stephen Harper who was re-elected yesterday has not demonstrated empathy. Instead, he has shown us how out of touch he is with what Canadians are thinking and feeling. Not only did he say that ordinary Canadians don't care about the arts, but he has also said over and over again during this political campaign that Canadians aren't worried about their savings and that they aren't worried about their mortgages when clearly they are. Instead of expressing understanding of the worry facing regular Canadians and the potentially devastating effect that the plummeting economy could have on those that are already on the brink of poverty, Harper chose to demonstrate his empathy deficit by saying "I think there are probably some great buying opportunities out there" when referring to the crashing stock market. And by the way, if anyone did take his advice that day, they probably threw their money in the garbage, set it on fire, and pissed on it (as a friend of mine described it on facebook).

Not only has he demonstrated a lack of empathy in general, but he has demonstrated it specifically as it relates to the poverty issue. A Toronto Star editorial called Harper lagging on poverty agenda points out that "his government dragged its feet on creating more affordable housing or daycare facilities, raising federal minimum wage rates or tackling child poverty across Canada. And on the world stage, Harper has done little to help live up to goals Canada agreed to when it declared its support for the millennium agreement in 2000". Harper's lack of leadership in the poverty issue is very evident and likely stems from his empathy deficit. If you can't feel true compassion for people afflicted by poverty, then it is difficult to champion the cause. Perhaps this is the reason why Harper just didn't have the words to express what his party planned to do to combat poverty. The Make Poverty History campaign sent a questionnaire to all of the Canadian party leaders and all of them except for Stephen Harper responded to the questionnaire and outlined specifically what their parties planned to do to combat poverty. The CBC article Harper unresponsive to anti-poverty group reported that Harper's office felt the questions were too specific and Harper would only answer more general questions. That is another way of saying that he hasn't really thought about the issues in much depth and doesn't really give a rat's ass.

Do the 5.2 million Canadians that voted for Harper last night have an Empathy Deficit too? Do they all care only about themselves? Do they also not give a rat's ass about poverty? If so, that is a sad state of affairs for our country and I have been truly wrong about the values that I thought we, as Canadians, held true.

Helping our Children Care

Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as valuable to the child as it is to the caterpillar.

- Bradley Miller, humorist

Perhaps our generation is a lost cause. Perhaps we've all been raised in such a dog eats dog, each person for himself, competitive environment that we don't know how to care about others. Maybe being left to cry  or being told to shut up and stop being such a baby hardened us and made us feel like if no one cares about us, why should we care about others.

Well pardon me if I want something different for my children's generation. I want them to know that they are loved unconditionally. I want to show them compassion. I want to model fairness. I want to teach them to embrace diversity. I've written before about the importance of emotional intelligence and the fact that empathy is a key element of emotional intelligence.

If you are not familiar with teaching and modeling empathy as a parenting tool, I would encourage you to do some reading. Some resources that I have enjoyed are:

  • Baby Hearts - A Guide to Giving Your Child an Emotional Head Start by Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn. This book has an entire chapter devoted to developing empathy in children, starting with infants. Great information on how empathy develops,  techniques for teaching empathy and information on "defense mechanisms" that humans use to reduce their own discomfort when dealing with someone else's suffering if they have not learned empathy (these excuses sound an awful lot like the things that Stephen Harper spews out of his mouth).

  • The Successful Child by William Sears and Martha Sears. This book has an entire chapter called "The Compassionate Child" that gives parents information on how to teach empathy from infancy through to adolescence. It starts with things that are as simple as responding to your child's cries and learning to share and goes up to more complex concepts and in depth ideas about equality, interacting with people with disabilities, learning about diversity, dealing with feelings, volunteering and staying connected with your child during adolescence.

  • Roots of Empathy by Mary Gordon. Roots of Empathy is an evidence-based classroom program that has shown a dramatic effect in reducing levels of aggression among school children by having them interact with and learn about a baby. The Green Party's platform included plans to roll this program out across the entire country, but unfortunately despite a strong standing in the popular vote, they didn't manage to elect anyone to parliament.

In addition to general techniques to teach empathy, help your children to understand poverty and get them engaged in a solution. Some ideas:

  • Give them extra chores to do around the house that you pay them to do, but request that they donate 50% of the proceeds to a charity that helps with poverty and agree to match whatever they donate

  • Have your child volunteer with you at a soup kitchen, at the food bank, or at other organizations or events that help the poor

  • Travel locally or globally to places that are stricken with poverty and talk to people and lend a helping hand

  • With older children, you can help them to write letters to the editor or otherwise formulate a response to social issues in the media

  • Teach your child to give something up for someone that has less, by donating toys or books or other items to charity

Actions like these will not only teach your child empathy and put us on the right track to addressing poverty, but it will also make your child feel good about himself. Don't we all feel better about ourselves when we truly make a difference?

In addition to being Blog Action Day, October 15 is also National Grouch Day and this issue is making me very grouchy. Please help the next generation be kinder than our own by giving your children the gift of empathy.

« My Discipline Spectrum | Main | Cures for Nature Deficit Disorder? Help for our Planet? »

Reader Comments (18)

What a wonderful post!
I have to reread it but please check out my post for today as well. I will come back and share my thoughts after I put my kids in bed :)

October 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMaya

This is such a great post. Empathy, compassion, generosity - the keys to making poverty history!

October 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMeg

indeed. one of the posts i came across this blog action day made me tear up a little (man, i hope nobody reads this comment). :O

it was about a dad who just recently thought it would be a good idea to talk to his kids about giving away some of their old toys. for the exercise, he got himself a box to fill up with the toys his kids would be willing to give away.

in the end, his kids filled up 4 boxes.

empathy indeed.

for my part, i turn to sites like freerice (rice donation), kiva (microfinance), and goodsearch (donation per search), as ways to help alleviate poverty online. i also put up their banners on my blog. :)

saw this post via the blog action day site. it's great that you're participating. :)

October 16, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterkouji haiku

Great post! I didn't know this was going on today and I am glad to see what you wrote.

October 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLu

Thanks so much for this post. I'm not a parent, but my parents taught my brother and me empathy in the same way that you propose. I'm certainly not perfect, but I am aware that with great blessings come great responsibility. Our mission in life is to be of maximum service to the Creator as we understand Him/Her/It and to our fellow beings. That kind of teaching begins at home but should not end there.

October 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterNEOmusings

Lovely post.
Truly instilling empathy in our kids is the greatest gift we can give them and the world. You have said it very well here.

I am subscribing and will be back to read more.
Thank you!

October 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMaya

[...] I want my children to act out of love. I want them to be empathetic towards others. I want them to treat people well because they care about those people and do not want to hurt [...]

November 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterNo Sinners in My House «

[...] them to give to those that are less fortunate than they are, just part of trying to overcome the empathy deficit in our [...]

November 22, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMoney money money money…

[...] I want my children to act out of love. I want them to be empathetic towards others. I want them to treat people well because they care about those people and do not want to hurt [...]

Nice article

February 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterarhiderrr

[...] Empathy - the ability to understand the feelings and viewpoints of subordinates and to take those into account when making decisions. [...]

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[...] Action Day 2009. Last year’s theme was poverty and I effortlessly wrote a long post about our Empathy Deficit and how it is preventing us from making poverty [...]

[...] history does not repeat itself or at least not on their watch. They will learn, so that they can demonstrate empathy and compassion, rather than the arrogant entitlement that so often accompanies privilege. They will [...]

[...] Empathy training begins at birth by demonstrating compassion to your baby and to others. [...]

[...] my children about sex, love, tolerance, religion, death, war, history, food, consumerism, feminism, empathy and more. So often it seems they are so busy being kids that they don’t have the time or the [...]

[...] few years ago, I wrote a blog post about the Empathy Deficit for Blog Action Day. I was questioning why so few people seem to care about the issue of poverty [...]

[...] Lacking empathy is a disease that is spreading worldwide as people focus on “me, me, me” and go about their busy lives. It is reflected in the way people treat others, in the way they vote, and in the way we’ve retreated away from our communities and retrenched into our nuclear families and independent lives. [...]

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