HomeVolume 5April 2020 Roots of empathy - part 3

This is the final part of MARY GORDON’s interview with JUDITH NELSON at the Spirit of Humanity Forum in Iceland in 2019. Mary speaks about the role of educators, and the emotional life of children. She provides an inspirational focus for educators regarding the educational priorities that are needed for a future humanity.

MG: In Roots of Empathy, we measure what we treasure, and we treasure children’s emotional lives. We don’t care what they know, we care what they feel: it’s important to let children tell you how they feel. The emotional life of the child is their real life, because in a baby’s brain emotions and cognition are inextricably linked; you can’t tease them apart. And, as children grow older, while the sections of the brain deal differently with emotion and cognition, there is a direct relationship between our emotions and what we pay attention to.

We completely pay attention to our emotions. If you’ve got a negative emotion happening, you can’t learn. In order to learn, you have to make sure that your emotions are positive. That’s why we ask, “How are you feeling today?” We don’t try to change what they feel, but it is like embedded professional development for the classroom teacher when our person comes in and says, “Good morning kids.” This is for the pre- or post-family visit, not when the mommy and baby are there, when we’re asking, “How’s the baby feeling?”

Favorite teachers are not the best teachers,
they’re the best “reachers.”
They’re the people who get you,
they’re the people who knew you were in their class
even if you weren’t the smartest student.
They appreciated you for who you were.

So, if the kids do this (thumbs up), the teacher can do a quick scan of the room and see that the kids are in good form. But if there are some who do this (thumbs neutral), you really have to consider what’s going on with them, as you can’t teach a child who’s in neutral. If there are a lot of them, you’ve got to pack up your lesson plan and start listening to the children: “So tell me, how was it today on your way to school? Would you like to share with someone how your day is going so far?” And, you know, if you ask authentically, children will tell you authentically.

It changes teaching practice when teachers realize that a worried child can’t learn. When they’re sad, sick or lonely, they can’t learn anything. Children who are depressed are sad, sick and lonely. So, this idea of teaching people versus teaching mathematics is an important thing. And what is it to be a person? It is to feel. And if you’re not feeling, you don’t have to be deliriously happy, but you have to be present. There is an armada of broken hearts in every classroom – we know the statistics.

Why don’t we realize that we have to start the day checking in with children? You can’t make everything better, but if you can acknowledge how they’re feeling, they already feel ‘felt.’ Favorite teachers are not the best teachers, they’re the best “reachers.” They’re the people who get you, they’re the people who knew you were in their class even if you weren’t the smartest student. They appreciated you for who you were.


Education has lost that because we’re into competition. It’s competition for jobs, no? Look at jobs – we’re going to do twenty jobs over a lifetime, so what job? The job is to be a good human being. Actually, it’s important to be happy, as the Dalai Lama would say. Now I’m not saying we should all pack our bags and go off to happy land, but to be a human being is to be able to connect with others. And this crisis of connection we’re in, if we don’t help children identify how they feel so that they can connect to one another, we’ve really missed the boat.

I really advocate helping teachers take an approach to teaching that I call “attachment-aware teaching,” realizing that every child in your class has had some kind of secure or insecure attachment. If they have had a secure attachment, they’ll be ready to learn, they’ll be resilient, they’ll deal with the blows in life. If they’ve had ambivalent, avoidant, or other kinds of attachment relationships, they won’t have an innate capacity to deal with the tidal wave of troubles that might come to them.

Teachers can have this in the back of their mind, to say to themselves, “Okay,” instead of, “What’s wrong with you?” Children communicate how they’re feeling with their behavior, so if the teacher can just think, “What’s happened to make you so nasty today? What’s happened so you make my life a misery? What’s happened so that you’re disrupting class?” because no child decides to be a “bad actor,” it’s just that they can’t deal with how they feel.

I think the secret to ending all the “-isms” in the world,
the secret to peaceful coexistence,
is to be able to see the humanity in the other.
And this Spirit of Humanity,
this beautiful concept, is based on empathy.

If teachers had insight into the emotional vulnerability of children – just as through the baby and parent relationship we show how a baby becomes who they are – they would realize that it’s through love. Children are predisposed through particular ways of being, but without that reference back and forth to mommy or daddy, they don’t know how to respond. Every time a baby falls down or cries, the first thing they do is look for their mother to see, “How am I doing? Should I be crying, or should I go back and try and walk again?” That’s what a secure attachment relation is – checking in to see, “Am I good to go?”

And if nobody gives you that, you never know. So, you have no anchor, you have no security blanket in your life, and the children who are in trouble are those children. The security blanket in life is the attachment relationship, and how many children have no relationship with their parents as they get older? It’s a tragedy.

Q: What you describe sounds so much like respecting the individual students’ feelings and noticing them, instead of having education for the sake of the establishment.

MG: Yes, and what are the ultimate goals of education? If it’s to produce architects, engineers, doctors etc., if they are without humanity they won’t do a good job. Is it to produce moral human beings who are ready to contribute to life, and who can be mutually respectful and have the capacity to care? The ethic of care is so overlooked.

There are two parts to empathy: There’s cognitive empathy and affective empathy. Cognitive empathy is perspective-taking and that’s the first stage of any conflict resolution. If you don’t have that, forget it. Forget peace in the Middle East. But if you don’t have affective empathy, the human part which is our emotions, you don’t really have empathy at all. With cognitive empathy you can still be a sociopath, because you have a skill where you can resonate with the perspective of another person. But if you don’t have the ethic of care, it may be a destructive thing. So many people define empathy as just cognitive empathy, but our definition of empathy is both affective and cognitive together. Very often confused with compassion and sympathy, whereas sympathy is unidimensional, it’s the ability to feel sorry.

There’s a lot of divergence of opinion around the relationship between compassion and empathy, and about the definitions of compassion and empathy, so everybody makes them up. I have shared mine, but I don’t think they are any better than others, and certainly there’s no one opinion on it. I do believe, however, that you must have empathy in order to act compassionately. And empathy to me is also a verb. Being an armchair empath is no good at all; there has to be a motor.

The beautiful thing about children is that they’re endlessly empathic once they realize that skill of being able to understand how another person feels and to feel with them. It’s a lifelong gift, and it cannot be taught. Everybody thinks you can teach empathy, but you can’t teach empathy. It’s caught, not taught. If you are around people who demonstrate empathy without saying, “This is empathic behavior,” who are just empathic, or if you see examples of kindness in people you love, that’s how you will develop these positive things.


You know, there are so many ridiculous things people do, like having flash cards for empathy, or saying, “We’re going to talk about empathy this week.” It’s totally meaningless. It’s better than nothing, I suppose, but the big things in life are not developed through instruction. It’s done by construction – meaningful human construction – not instruction. In fact, there’s very little in life we learn through instruction. It’s only the higher-level things and, basically, those we could probably learn on our own. If you can’t be with someone and learn from someone, you can’t really be a constructive, contributing human being.

So, I think our schools really need to shake themselves up and ask, “What are we doing here?” Imagine having the privilege of being with a child five or six hours a day, five days a week. It’s an incredible gift. That’s more than their parents have.

The beautiful thing about children
is that they’re endlessly empathic once they realize
that skill of being able to understand
how another person feels and to feel with them.
It’s a lifelong gift, and it cannot be taught.

I used to be a teacher, and I think we’re highly accountable. It’s the reason why when teachers ask Roots of Empathy into their classroom, I say, “Okay, but we need to do research.” They say, “No, no, we know you’re grand,” but I say, “We need to do research.” Every single person involved with the program, every child who can write, does an evaluation, critiques the program every year; every child, every volunteer mother, every volunteer instructor, and the classroom teacher who hosts it. Then we do formal research, which is the white jacket, peer reviewed, scientific, independent, published research, which tells us if we’re doing what we think we’re doing. But I have to say, what I listen to the deepest is what the children tell us. That’s when I change.

We’re always updating our curriculum. Take cyber bullying, for example; if we don’t have cyber bullying in our programs, we’re not addressing the current situation of children, because the landscape of childhood changes all the time. It’s not very good at the minute, but children don’t change; they’ve always been the same. They might sound more sophisticated because they use Elon Musk words like parking cars in space, and all that, but their emotional vulnerability, their essence, the beauty of childhood doesn’t change.

Children are under more stress than ever before, and I don’t think we’re listening hard enough to what they are telling us through their behavior. The children who are on Ritalin, for having Attention Deficit Disorder, have been given a prescription so that the adults can keep sane, and it stunts and blunts the children’s growth. A lot of what we’re doing is medicating children instead of changing their environment, because resilience is not about what’s in you, it’s about what’s around you. You can bring it into you, but if it’s not around you how can you become resilient? You’re not born with it, you know.

I think the trip from the mind
to the heart is a short journey,
and the fuller the heart
the bigger the head.

In many places you’ll hear people say, “Oh, you’ve gotta have grit.” That’s the nastiest four-letter word I’ve ever heard. It’s blaming children for not having grit. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Change the record.” It’s like saying to an abused woman, “Why don’t you just leave? How stupid can you be? Just leave.” It’s not understanding where that person is coming from, not understanding the impact of abuse.

And to say to a child who’s been brought up in adversity, who’s witnessed violence at home, “You just have to have grit,” is a denial of the fact that we all have different journeys. And we expect even results, even in kindergarten. Everybody is held to the same measure, but the measure is not the measure of personhood. The measure is something easy to measure, but it’s no measure of humanity, it’s no measure of kindness, it’s no measure of empathy or emotional depth. There’s only the measure of what we’re able to measure.


Who cares if you know your colors, or your 123s, or your ABCs? What you really need when you start kindergarten is to be able to ask for help, to be able to make friends, to be able to learn; and the readiness to learn is grounded in being well-loved.

So, what kind of world are we creating? We measure children up, and we put them in categories – “You’re in the Bluebird Group” – and everyone knows that’s the slow readers, right? So, we categorize children without ever really thinking, “Who are these little people?”

I just can’t get over the gift that parents give. They deliver their baby, their miracle, and they keep hearing how bad they are at stuff, or how they were acting out, or “You’re not doing a good enough job at home,” all of these kinds of things that instead of building up the family just knock it down. So, I hope educators come to the Spirit of Humanity forum. I hope educators hear about your brand of humanity and realize that if we don’t recognize the humanity of every child in education, we’ve not done our job.

Q: Why did you say that Heartfulness is a nice name?

MG: I love the word “Heartfulness,” and to call an organization “Heartfulness” is to embody your values, because we’re not just our minds – our hearts inform our minds. And if we don’t have a full heart, we won’t have the full capacity to use our skills and our brains in a constructive way. I think the trip from the mind to the heart is a short journey, and the fuller the heart the bigger the head. So, I just feel it’s such a warm name.

The first thing children draw when they learn to draw is hearts. They put hearts everywhere. It’s not just little girls. When they write little love notes – “Daddy I love you” – they draw a heart. Nobody tells them to do that. So, from the youngest age, children draw hearts because we all can relate, and the heart is not just a beating pump, the heart is our humanity, and that’s why I like your name.

Interviewed by JUDITH NELSON


Mary Gordon

Mary Gordon

Mary is recognized internationally as an award-winning social entrepreneur, educator, author, child advocate and parenting expert, whose programs are informed by empathy. In 1996 she created the Roots of Empathy program, which is now offere... Read More