The Book: Roots of Empathy


Gordon, Mary.  Roots of Empathy (Thomas Allen, 2005).

Every so often in the life of a civilization, there comes a book that can literally change the way we are in the world. Roots of Empathy is such a book. As a society, we have accomplished many things, but we have overlooked one vital aspect of our humanity that if paid attention to can literally change our lives: the innate empathy and wisdom of babies.

With violence, anti-social behaviour, bullying and aggression among young children escalating at a frightening rate, it is clear that we need to develop a new understanding of childhood.

Mary Gordon is an educator who has worked for more than two decades with children from all kinds of backgrounds. She has discovered that the solution to bullying and other anti-social behaviour lies within each child's natural sense of caring and compassion.

Through Roots of Empathy, her highly successful organization, Mary Gordon creates a rich, rewarding classroom experience that fosters empathy within children. The program brings babies and students together in a symbiotic loving environment that has been proven to reduce aggression and increase tolerance and emotional understanding in children.

In Roots of Empathy, the innovative and inspired book based on her ground-breaking and successful classroom program and solid research, Mary Gordon shares her vision of a society of compassionate and caring children who will pass on their legacy of empathy to their own children. She believes that infusing children with empathy constitutes nothing less than a new paradigm in our approach to child-raising. It is an approach that could very well change our world.

Watch Mary Gordon on our YouTube Channel.


Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Roots of Empathy

from a tiny seed

Image a third grade classroom.

Recess has just ended and the children are shouting across the room to one another, still caught up in the game that they played outside. The teacher is about to raise her hand—the cue for them to settle down. The Roots of Empathy instructor has arrived and is spreading a green blanket on the floor. It is as if a spell has been cast. Quietly, the children arrange themselves cross-legged on the floor around the blanket. The hush in the room is palpable. The classroom door opens. A young mother is standing there with her five-month-old baby. The baby is wriggling in his mother’s arms; his legs are drumming against his mother’s body. He is clearly excited. Without prompting, the children break out in a greeting song: “Hello, Tomas, how are you? How are you? How are you? Hello, Tomas, how are you? How are you today?”

Tomas and his mother walk around the green blanket greeting each child in turn. Mom sits down and places Tomas on his tummy; the children wait eagerly to see what he will do. It is time to ask Mom what life with Tomas has been like over the month since Tomas last visited the classroom. Has the baby laughed yet? Has Tomas tried any food? Can he roll over yet? Did his first tooth come in?

The instructor kneels on the blanket and holds up a toy. It is one that Tomas has not shown interest in before. It’s colourful, it has bold patterns, it has different textures and it makes a delightful jingling sound: a multisensory learning tool. In an earlier class the instructor has taught the students that babies learn through their senses, that neurons form synaptic connections from environmental stimuli. As the children watch Tomas’s face and body react to hearing the jingle, they snap their fingers—demonstrating the surge of electricity that is connecting neurons in Tomas’s brain. The children appreciate that Tomas has to coordinate vision and hearing to find the toy, just as they had to coordinate balancing and pedalling when learning to ride a two-wheeler. They continue watching closely as Tomas tries to locate where the jingle is coming from and, as his eyes find the toy, they snap their fingers again, but this time the snapping is accompanied by excited shouts of encouragement: “Way to go, Tomas!” Tomas’s brain is growing. And the children catch that moment of growth.

Tomas’s mother is impressed by the interest the children take in her son’s development and moved by their obvious excitement at every new thing Tomas learns.

The children have spent time with the instructor the previous week preparing for Tomas’s visit, predicting what he will be able to do. They will spend time in the week after Tomas’s visit exploring what they learned and connecting it to their own development and feelings. And then the big leap—gaining an understanding of their classmates’ feelings.

This is a snapshot of a few moments in a Roots of Empathy classroom. Tomas and his mother will visit this class every month for the school year. The children will be coached by the instructor to observe the parent–child relationship, the baby’s development, the baby’s temperament, their own temperament and that of their classmates. They will learn about infant safety and issues that have an impact on their own well-being and security. They will learn how an understanding of temperament and gaining insights into their own emotions and those of others leads to empathy and builds rich human relationships.

Sowing Seeds of Empathy

Darren was the oldest child I ever saw in a Roots of Empathy class. He was in Grade 8 and had been held back twice. He was two years older than everyone else and already starting to grow a beard. I knew his story: his mother had been murdered in front of his eyes when he was four years old, and he had lived in a succession of foster homes ever since. Darren looked menacing because he wanted us to know he was tough: his head was shaved except for a ponytail at the top and he had a tattoo on the back of his head.

The instructor of the Roots of Empathy program was explaining to the class about differences in temperament that day. She invited the young mother who was visiting the class with Evan, her six- month-old baby, to share her thoughts about her baby’s temperament. Joining in the discussion, the mother told the class how Evan liked to face outwards when he was in the Snugli and didn’t want to cuddle into her, and how she would have preferred to have a more cuddly baby. As the class ended, the mother asked if anyone wanted to try on the Snugli, which was green and trimmed with pink brocade. To everyone’s surprise, Darren offered to try it, and as the other students scrambled to get ready for lunch, he strapped it on. Then he asked if he could put Evan in. The mother was a little apprehensive, but she handed him the baby, and he put Evan in, facing towards his chest. That wise little baby snuggled right in, and Darren took him into a quiet corner and rocked back and forth with the baby in his arms for several minutes. Finally, he came back to where the mother and the Roots of Empathy instructor were waiting and he asked: “If nobody has ever loved you, do you think you could still be a good father?”

A seed has been sown here. This boy, who has seen things no child should see, whose young life has been marked by abandonment, who has struggled to the age of fourteen with scarcely a memory of love, has seen a glimmer of hope. Through these moments of contact with the uncritical affection of the baby, an adolescent boy has caught an image of himself as a parent that runs counter to his loveless childhood. The baby may have changed the trajectory of this youth’s future by allowing him to see the humanity in himself. For eight years now I have seen the lights go on for children in Roots of Empathy classes as we give them a working model of loving and responsive parenting and an opportunity to interact with an infant in the first year of life.

Roots of Empathy is a program for school-aged children that involves them, right in their own classrooms, in the human dynamic of the parent–baby relationship. It is a program that has the capacity to instill in our children a concept of themselves as strong and caring individuals, to give them an understanding of empathic parenting and to inspire in them a vision of citizenship that can change the world. The program puts relationships at the centre of what creates a civil society, whether that society is a small classroom, the whole school, the community, the country or our evershrinking globe. The relationship story is made real for children as they connect with a baby and parent who are regular visitors to their classroom during the first year of the baby’s life. The relationship between the parent and child is a template for positive, empathic human relationships. What the children learn here has universal and far-reaching implications: it shapes how they deal with each other today, and it lays a foundation for their future as parents and citizens.

The children involved in the program and the adults who support it invariably come to know what can only be described as the wisdom of the baby. The baby’s behaviour and the emotions she expresses are spontaneous and pure; they are not hidden behind layers of socialization and the biases we acquire as we grow up. To the baby every child in the class is a new experience and she is ready to engage with all of them. In her world view there are no popular children and no nasty children. What the baby does see, over and over again, are the children who are unhappy or troubled, and she usually reaches out to them. Children who have felt alienated or excluded are drawn into a circle of inclusion through the empathic contact made by the baby.

Roots of Empathy places babies in the role of teachers because babies love without borders or definition. Babies respond intuitively to love. They are blind to differences as defined by the world. It is only when young children learn from the adult world that some are more worthy than others, because of some perceived difference, that we see the unfolding of the intergenerational legacy of racism, classism and a host of other “isms.”

David was nine years old and had a form of autism. His parents shared with me that David had never been invited to a birthday party by any of his classmates until the year that Roots of Empathy came into his classroom. During this year he was invited to three birthday parties. Also in this year David’s feelings about himself and school took a 180-degree turn. No medicine ever affected his life as much as the inclusive response of his classmates. This changed behaviour comes from the children’s new understanding of the pain of exclusion and the importance of including someone who is different. This is the transformative power of the Roots of Empathy program.

Of all the literacies of childhood, emotional literacy is the most fundamental. Feelings define our similarity as humans. Our emotions are universal. The ability to find the humanity in one another will change the way that we relate to one another. It can have a huge impact on the family, by interrupting patterns of child abuse and neglect that are so often repeated through parenting in the next generation. It can have an impact on policies that lead us into conflict or compromise. It can have an impact on our very identity as citizens of the world.

Teaching children emotional literacy and developing their capacity to take the perspective of others are key steps towards collaboration and civility; they are indispensable steps towards preventing aggressive and bullying behaviours. This is borne out  by the research that has been conducted on the effectiveness of  the Roots of Empathy program. When children learn to draw the curtain on cruelty, they will not condone classmates bullying others. It is remarkable to see children standing up courageously to a bully. There are no onlookers or bystanders in the program, as children realize they have a responsibility to one another because they understand what it feels like to be frightened or humiliated or even physically hurt. As children develop empathy it seems to come ready-made with courage and imagination. Children understand marginalization and issues of social justice in a clear and uncluttered way.

At one school I visited, ten-year-old Jessie was lining up with the rest of her classmates to go out for lunch when one of the boys grabbed a hat right off the head of another boy. It’s the kind of behaviour that is repeated every day, in every school, in every community. As adults, we often ignore it or simply sigh with exasperation. But the truth is, it has the effect of making the other child feel helpless and making him a target for ridicule.

If you have empathy, you understand how that victim feels. In the midst of a crowd of onlookers, he has to either work up the courage to retrieve the hat or ignore the taunting boy, and carry the humiliation and loss of dignity silently into the playground. Jessie stepped out of the line-up and confronted the young fello who took the hat and said, calmly but firmly, “Give him back his hat.” The boy looked around the line-up, weighing the reactions of the others. What he saw, I imagine, was that others in the group empathized with his victim; it could just as easily have been them. Finally he said, “Oh, take your stupid hat,” and gave it back. Not the most gracious response, perhaps, but a moral victory had been won. Jessie had acted on her feeling of empathy and the human right of that child not to be humiliated. Every child in the class had been given a new promise—that these small acts of cruelty would not be tolerated, and that they would find support if they, too, were victims. An incident like this prompts us to see that sometimes the bravest advocates wear size three sneakers.

The seeding of citizenship in the classroom is aimed at creating a level of civility in the community and building the foundation for breaking intergenerational cycles of indifference and apathy. They may be students in the classroom but they are the parents, policymakers and electorate of the future. Roots of Empathy creates the conditions for good citizenship to grow in much the same way that farmers who are not responsible for manufacturing crops are responsible for creating the conditions under which crops canthrive. The interactive, emotionally validating conditions of the Roots of Empathy classroom create the safe backdrop for children to become all that they might be. There is an unexpected magnificence in our children and anunderestimated power in their ability to change our world for the better. It is through our children that we can go beyond the frontiers of science and technology to explore the recesses of the human heart. We have managed to harness the power of the wind, the sun and the water, but have yet to appreciate the power of our children to effect social change.

A major cause of many of the conflicts in the world is our intolerance of difference. On the world stage, differences provide the justification for genocide and war, or failure to respond in times of disaster and disease. Over the ages, differences in religion, nationality, race, culture or language have been the cause for condoned slaughter. On the playground, differences become a target for bullies, for in the difference lies the vulnerability. Bullies capitalize on differences in their victims, whether it is that the child is shorter,
fatter, less popular or less athletic. The current epidemic of bullying across schools and communities in North America is on the radar screen of parents, educators, children’s mental health workers and the justice system.

Roots of Empathy is a pedagogy of hope, because in our children we have an opportunity to create a new order where our differences can be acknowledged and respected but our similarities will be our uniting force. The program coaches children to build a caring classroom as they become able to see their shared humanity—the idea that “what hurts my feelings is likely to hurt your feelings.” The program is based on the idea that if we are able to take the perspective of the Other we will notice  and appreciate our commonalities and we will be less likely to allow differences to cause us to marginalize, hate or hurt each other.

Read the remainder of the first chapter: