Baby steps toward a more peaceful world
A Toronto educator's parenting-for-kids program has morphed into a plan to make all humanity more empathic. Pie in the sky? Its been working
September 13, 2009

Staff Reporter

Mary Gordon wants to change humanity by rewiring a child's brain — one child at a time.

A noble idea, but is it possible?

"Damn right," says the 61-year-old Gordon, who still has a strong Newfoundland accent despite her many years teaching in Toronto. "It does sound a grandiose notion, doesn't it? But she believes it works. Otherwise why would she be doing it, she asks rhetorically.

Whether she is speaking on a panel with the Dali Lama or to students at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Gordon's theme is the same: the world will be a better place if children grow up understanding the other's perspective. There will be no more genocides, no more wars, no more racism or violence, she declares. She has built what she believes is a road map to achieve a kinder, gentler humanity.

The mother of two grown children -- a boy and a girl -- got her start in the field of education as a kindergarten teacher in Toronto. She went on to set up parenting and literacy centres in the old Toronto Board of Education.

But it wasn't until she came up with her Roots of Empathy program, an offshoot of her parenting and literacy work, that she began to see how a simple idea could transform the world. Her book, Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child, has just been published in the United States, following publication here four years ago. It was a Canadian bestseller, winning praise from the likes of Fraser Mustard and Michael Fullan of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Since then she has won the endorsement of the Dali Lama, who has embraced her program as a way to build world peace. Gordon spoke on a panel with the Dali Lama in both Vancouver and Seattle in 2006 and 2008.

The buzz then and now: empathy and or compassion. Gordon believes we're facing a new era — one full of empathy. She's not alone. The Age of Empathy – a new book published jointly by McClelland & Stewart in Canada and Harmony Books in the United States – suggests, contrary to popular opinion, man is not in fact destined to be selfish.

Rather, argues author Frans de Waal, a primatologist based in Atlanta, Georgia, human beings are group animals who are highly cooperative, sensitive to injustice and mostly peace loving just like other primates, elephants and dolphins. He believes human beings may very well be destined to feel for one another or are "preprogrammed to reach out."

Gordon believes empathy must be nurtured and children coached so they can be empathetic all the time. Her premise has caught on in Canada and abroad. Last year in Ontario alone about 20,000 kids learned how to be more empathetic thanks to Gordon's program. Since its inception in 1996 about 107,200 students in Ontario have taken the Toronto-based Roots of Empathy program.

Gordon, an Order of Canada winner, presides over a non-for profit charitable foundation that runs Roots of Empathy, sending instructors to teach the program as well as train them to teach it in schools. She also has just launched a centre of excellence within the Toronto District School Board, which will open its doors Oct. 9. It will serve as a Roots of Empathy laboratory for best practices and serve as a model for international educators interested in the program.

Across Canada 55,000 children in nine provinces took the course in 2008-2009. The program is also taught in the United States, New Zealand and the Isle of Man. Educators in Brazil, China, Africa and India have also expressed interest in Roots of Empathy.

As her program has evolved and grown so has her belief in what she's doing. "Basically the relationships in early life determine your ability to love or hate, your empathy, all of these things," she explains. "So if we want to build a caring and peaceful and civil society, we have to look at those capacities in our children to understand and include and to believe everyone has the right to belong."

Her program is simple: she takes a two- or three-month-old baby and the mother and father and puts them in a classroom. The baby and the parents visit nine times. A Roots of Empathy instructor meets with the class 27 times, looking at nine different themes.

"The children gather around a green blanket," Gordon explains. The baby is there, and the parent. They (the children) are coached in observing what's going on with the baby.

"The baby starts at two to four months – they can barely lift their heads. What we're trying to do is to help the children get the perspective of the other. Through the experiential learning through the baby they are learning a whole vocabulary and fluency around discussing how the baby's feeling."

The children bond with the baby and discuss the critical decisions required when raising a child amongst themselves, with the help of the instructor. What began as a kind of parenting course for children has sprung into a program that Gordon believes rewires a child's brain so he or she is more empathetic.

Research from a University of British Columbia professor and others seems to back her up. According to a paper by UBC's Kimberley Schonert-Reichl, even three years after the course, children's aggression and bullying behaviour was way down and their social and emotional understanding of others remained high.

Gordon believes firmly in what she has learned and witnessed at the kitchen tables of parents over the years. "We know (that with ) little ones that witness violence (that) it does something to their hardwiring. The stress that comes from living in a violent environment when you're little has increased levels of cortisol which is injurious to the brain and if it stays up for a long time your thermostat is also set high. It has huge negative outcomes for your physical and mental health and your capacity to form healthy relationships."

The Roots of Empathy program is given to two age groups. The first program is geared to children in Kindergarten to Grade 3. The second is targeted to children in grades 4 to 8. And while the language may be more sophisticated for the older crowd the message is always the same – empathy.

"I'm seeing the children as the agents of change in the world," Gordon explains. "The baby is the lever that appeals to their sense of justice. The baby is the catalyst, if you will, that allows us to have profound discussions about social justice in Kindergarten or Grade 8.''

Gordon believes that "if we are able to influence positively the capacity of children to take the perspective of the other, and to be able to understand themselves and find the humanity in one another, we will have children in our boardrooms and in our war rooms who are empathetic.

"If we do not develop civic capacities for empathy we will never be able to protect ourselves from the genocides of the future," Gordon says. "If we can help little children understand the rights and entitlement of everybody to their square of sand; if we can build the capacity for children to have dialogue that is respectful, that embraces the perspective of the other, we will have a different quality of problem solving."

She points to examples from the classroom. Both were told to her by the Roots of Empathy instructors. In one case, a 6-year-old child who was in the program had a panic attack on the top of a slide, recounts Gordon. Many of the other children were waiting to use the slide. They were throwing stones and calling him names. His best friend, who also took the Roots of Empathy course, went over to the slide and told the other children to stop and that he was going to help his friend. He climbed up to the top of the ladder and then put his legs and arms around his friend and said: "Don't worry, we'll go down together."

In another instance, Gordon tells of a nine-year-old girl who was teased because she had inexpensive velcro running shoes on. Her best friend heard the teasing and was heartbroken. She thought all morning about how she was going to help her friend, Gordon said. Then she asked if she could wear one of her friend's running shoes at recess. She went out on the playground with odd shoes. "The message to every child on the plaground or those who heard about what happened: You make fun of my friend and you make fun of me. And you have me to deal with."

Gordon pauses as if the enormity of the stories hits her for the first time. "I guess the big idea of trying to change the world child by child is that children aren't just part of the future. They are 100 per cent of the future. They are the ones who will determine the quality of existence in the world. They are the ones who will make the policies to decide whether this is an inclusive world or not. They are the ones who will decide who we will marginalize and the minute we marginalize we're looking at war. They are the ones who will dictate the level of social justice."

And those two children who demonstrated empathy for their friends may very well change the course of humanity. "It's pretty impressive when you think about it. Because what we see happening in these classrooms is children being heroic. Children standing out and taking chances."

Right now that doesn't happen in any old schoolyard, Gordon maintains. More than likely it's in a school where Roots of Empathy is taught. But one day she's hoping that children all around the world will think nothing of taking chances like that – being heroic and empathetic to help a friend and when they are adults hopefully recast the world.