Addressing the “Toxins in our Hearts”: A Conversation with Mary Gordon, founder of Roots of Empathy

Addressing the “Toxins in our Hearts”: A Conversation with Mary Gordon, founder of Roots of Empathy
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Mary Gordon and I are both haunted by the humanitarian crises in our world that are accompanied by a coldness that is critical. Her path of penetrating the alienation that has been brutalizing us is very particular. She has brought her knowledge, her creativity and her passion to founding and directing the Canadian organization called Roots of Empathy.

Gordon was a kindergarten teacher who saw saw generational patterns of abuse and neglect repeating themselves. She wanted to find a way to tip a generation by interrupting patterns; her mission became helping school age children know and embrace empathy as a key to living; the school would be the vehicle of change.

Mary Gordon recognizes our huge crisis of connection with so much alienation. “We don’t have the capacity or the will to empathize with the humanity of the ‘other’. We don’t consider them in the same category of the neighbor. We identify from whatever orientation we have as a group. I’m hoping we can help children to see the other as ourselves, and that we can reach across the divides to see the other as self.” Amen, I think.

CS Please tell me about how Roots of Empathy works.

MG Well, the idea has been (in terms of our practical involvement) to find a parent and young infant (we start at 2 months old) where there is a secure, clearly attuned relationship between parent and child. The parent and baby come to the classroom and the class focuses on what is going on in the child and in the relationship.

CS Do you teach children empathy?

MG You really can’t teach empathy. Actually we engage the children by asking them to share their perceptions of what is going on with the baby and the caregiver. What we do, coach the children to help them understand a child’s signals and what they mean.

CS Do the children feel self-conscious about getting something wrong?

MG What is amazing is that the mood of the classroom is fully accepting and the children become enchanted. We believe in intrinsic motivation and intrinsic pride.

CS Can you tell me a little about intrinsic pride? Intrinsic motivation is about not having to offer children rewards to get them to apply themselves to learning, correct?

MG Yes, and with intrinsic pride there is no big fuss made out of getting something right, or even wrong. There is total acceptance so what we see with the absence of competition is that children are not afraid of being or feeling humiliated. So they all participate because their participation is welcomed and appreciated, but not praised.

CS Do you mostly work with healthy children in the schools?

MG Not at all. We work with children who are Syrian refugees, and other populations who have seen their share of violence, mostly in the contexts of their families. We work universally with a whole classroom full of children but often that classroom has been targeted or the school has been targeted because they do have a high population of vulnerable children.

CS And you don’t find those kids, who have been deprived, are jealous?

MG Not at all. In fact people have been surprised, even the BBC who recently came over from England to film the program. They were blown away by how well behaved the children in the Roots of Empathy program were. But this is also because children are excited by the prospect of giving, as in sharing.

CS Can you explain a bit more of how the children learn about empathy and attunement.

MG We ask the children what they see, where the baby is looking, etc. Does the baby seem anxious; what are the expressions that help a child begin locate and read the emotional cues of the baby. The children put the cognitive perspective taking they are learning together with their own feelings, these being the two components of empathy. They experience empathy, which is really taking the perspective of the other person, understanding how that person feels and feeling with them.

In addition to coaching we also use literature to ground the children in emotional literacy. There is a beloved tradition that when the baby arrives and leaves the children stand around the green blanket in a circle and sing the welcome and farewell song as the baby is presented to each and every one of them as the parent walks around the circle.

CS What happens if a parent volunteers and has problems with attachment?

MG We are seeking families where there is already a secure attachment. We are not fixing families; we help them to assist the school children to break cycles of alienation.

CS How do people get involved with Roots of Empathy?

MG We go to where we are invited and where there is a readiness to become involved with our program, through the schools.

CS Where are you working so far?

MG As you know we’re based in Toronto. We are involved in all the provinces of Canada, six states in the US, and in Costa Rica, New Zealand, Germany, Scotland, England, Wales, Switzerland, Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland. And it’s spreading. In 2018 we’ll be expanding to the Netherlands and Portugal.

CS You seem involved in your work and in your research, but you also seem impassioned about education and the world at large.

MG We are really posing the question: “What is the whole purpose of education? Are you wanting to build a civil society where there is dignity for all people? Or are you trying to build places where people compete for the top or for wealth or for their own accomplishments only?” There is so much competition, with the recognition of results rather than the process of growing and learning and sharing.

In our program the children celebrate everything the little baby is up to. They lose themselves in shared wonderment. They become advocates for the rights of babies and all children.

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