The New York Times Opinionator blog has published a post by David Bornstein, “Fighting Bullies with Babies,” with the headline perhaps first conjuring images of babies fired, missile-like, at bullies, but that in fact refers to a program, “Roots of Empathy.” This program is rooted in Canada and has the imprimatur of the likes of the Dalai Lama himself. It covers grades kindergarten through 8, and there is also a preschool program available.
According to the New York Times post, the program goes like this:
Here’s how it works: Roots arranges monthly class visits by a mother and her baby (who must be between two and four months old at the beginning of the school year). Each month, for nine months, a trained instructor guides a classroom using a standard curriculum that involves three 40-minute visits – a pre-visit, a baby visit, and a post-visit. The program runs from kindergarten to seventh grade. During the baby visits, the children sit around the baby and mother (sometimes it’s a father) on a green blanket (which represents new life and nature) and they try to understand the baby’s feelings. The instructor helps by labeling them. “It’s a launch pad for them to understand their own feelings and the feelings of others,” explains (Roots of Empathy Founder, Mary) Gordon. “It carries over to the rest of class.”
The entrenchment in “perspective taking” as part of the interaction with the baby is designed make empathy contagious. But does it work? According to the NYT post, four studies that have evaluated Roots of Empathy have shown effectiveness. Some researchers point to oxytocin, the “trust” hormone, as one possible explanation. What everyone does seem to recognize is that babies have a softening effect on the children, one that sticks around. I know from my own experience that once I had children, I had a great deal more empathy for the college students I was teaching, grasping better than ever before their feelings and conditions as people, not just as one of the sea of faces in my large science classes.
Read the entire NYT post, top to bottom. Read the comments, also…they’re among the most positive I’ve ever seen online. It’s fascinating and hopeful. It’s also a Canadian program, although the group has piloted some efforts in the United States, in Washington state. Do you think it’s something that could be–and should be–rooted throughout the United States?
Many thanks to Jordan Sadler of Communication Therapy for bringing this story to my attention.