Saturday, August 1, 2020

Cultivating empathy and tolerance in our children and students

How do we teach empathy and tolerance?

Gifted children often seem primed for empathy. Some are highly sensitive, and many display strong reactions to any signs of social injustice. Recent protests against racism and injustice in the wake of George Floyd's death may fuel questions, fears, confusion, and anger, even among young gifted children, who don't understand why injustice exists at all. It just doesn't make sense to them.  

Parents and teachers may question how they can address current events without increasing fears and anxiety. How do we ensure that our children develop empathy and compassion, and learn to recognize their own biases and prejudices? How do we help them feel safe, but also find outlets for expressing their values and fighting injustice? And what if our child or student is on the receiving end of prejudice and injustice? How do we protect these children? 

Each child awakens to intolerance and prejudice at their own pace. Our job as parents or teachers is to increase empathy and awareness through education and support, quell fear, and embolden them to go forth in the world with eyes wide open.

When I was in middle school, a very progressive English teacher assigned works from Black authors such as James Baldwin and Richard Wright and even Eldridge Cleaver - determined to thwart any emerging racism in our developing psyches. Learning about life in Black Harlem or the South was a powerful eye-opener, but more importantly, encouraged empathic awareness at such a formative young age. The teacher’s relentless instruction in the value of empathy demanded respect for others’ very different life experiences. 

This education awakened me from my blindness to the racism around me. Nevertheless, I still question my own unwanted but likely embedded biases and stereotypes, as I try to uncover their origins and my own complicit role in their inhabitancy. Although I may never fully grasp the profound prejudices and roadblocks persons of color confront every day, I am open to learning. What if I never had this educational opportunity? What if English and History had been business as usual, focusing on standard fare without addressing racial and social inequality? How many schoolchildren are oblivious to injustice or lack empathy for those who differ from their own families? 

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Gifted children grasp information quickly and are hungry to learn. Often highly sensitive, they respond emotionally to highly charged situations. Through guidance and support at home - along with an educational environment that teaches about differences, injustice, and compassion for others - gifted children can flex their empathy muscles and enlist their drive for meaningful learning. As Gottlieb and colleagues noted, gifted children learn best when immersed in learning that engages their search for meaning and a sense of purpose. 

As a psychologist, I witness clients' efforts to balance their compassion for others with their own needs. Psychotherapists sit with clients as they share their lived experiences, and routinely engage our ability to empathize with their feelings and life situations. We encourage them to find compassion for their difficulties, patch up fragile self-esteem, and discover empathy for those who have inflicted pain. When they see that their abusive parent or estranged sister or philandering ex-spouse has endured suffering as well, they have a better chance of moving past their own cycles of misery. Along the way, psychotherapy demonstrates that the capacity for insight into motives, experiences, and hardships – both theirs and others’ –  bestows a valuable lifelong tool. While empathy is only one of many tools necessary for achieving social justice, it is essential. 

Compassion experts like Tara Brach and Kristin Neff and Sharon Salzberg remind us to cultivate empathy and compassion for those we do not particularly like or understand, as well as for ourselves. While not everyone engages in psychotherapy,  all children receive an education - both at home and in school. I was fortunate to have had a teacher who encouraged self-reflection and openness to others’ different backgrounds. All children deserve an education that awakens their intrinsic ability to feel compassion and empathy for others. 

Of course, safety is primary, and we must work to ensure that our children are not targets of bias, prejudice, or at its worst, violence. Children who live and go to school in environments where violence is a common occurrence face relentless fear and trauma. Eliminating these threats requires a systemic effort on the part of the community.* Even if your children or students are insulated from daily threats of violence in their neighborhoods, we still must engage their awareness, and work to eliminate injustice and prejudice when we see it. We can protect them from overwhelming fears by creating a safe environment where they can explore their questions and worries. But we do our children and students a disservice if we fail to prepare them for the widely diverse world at large.

*Recommendations for addressing this are beyond the scope of this article.

Portions of this article were previously published in More Currents: PSPP Newsletter. June, 2020.

Some additional Gifted Challenges articles on similar topics

Gifted kids, spirituality, anti-intellectualism, and existential struggle: A mixed bag

How addressing recent hate crimes is relevant to gifted education

How to help your child make sense of the recent news

Helping your gifted child in the aftermath of Charlottesville

For the gifted community in the election aftermath

Women, success, and harnessing inherent strengths

This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Education Blog Hop on Tolerance and Equality. To read more blog posts, click here.


  1. I definitely agree empathy is a key tool. Understanding others' frailties, experiences, even if they hurt us, absolutely helps us cope and forgive or and heal.

  2. And of course, strong empathetic ability helps us see and act on injustice.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Missy. I agree that feeling empathy can be a challenging experience, but a necessary component to understanding others.