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Five Ways to Develop Empathy in Generation Z

In May 2007, an Iraqi artist named Wafaa Bilal decided to move into a gallery space in Chicago. He planned to do a 30-day experiment on “empathy” in light of what had happened to his brother In Iraq. His brother had been killed by an airstrike from a drone that was shot by a soldier far away. Wafaa was shocked by how the shooter could emotionally disconnect from the targets he shot at, even when they’re human.

Wafaa’s experiment would allow him to observe empathy levels in people when they are allowed to hurt someone from a distance. Boy, did he learn a lot.

His gallery space could be seen online by anyone around the world. In the room was a desk, a lamp, a bed and a paintball gun rigged to a camera that users could take aim and shoot anything in that room, anytime, day or night.

What happened?

Ordinary people from multiple nations shot him with that paintball gun more than 70,000 times. He was stunned and saddened by how anonymous people hurt him. Others shot at the lamp, the desk or the other items in the room. In just 30 days, Wafaa discovered what a disconnected, isolated and fractured world we live in. Why would people who don’t even know him choose to shoot at him?

The War For Kindness

Stanford researcher Jamil Zaki wrote the book this year called, The War for Kindness, Building Empathy in a Fractured World. In the book, Zaki attempts to discover if technology and modern life make us less caring. Are we more desensitized and jaded when it comes to suffering?

Jamil talks about an experiment that was done at a shopping mall (public space) where a table and bucket are set up for donations to be made to needy children. They wanted to discover what moved people toward empathetic generosity? At times, they stationed a child in a wheelchair next to the table; at other times, no one at all. Sometimes they would post photos of hungry or disabled children next to the table and at other times they’d post faces of happy, smiling children.

What they discovered was insightful.

The researchers discovered that not only did people donate less when a disabled child or a photo of a disabled child was nearby, people actually walked further away from the display, avoiding contact with the opportunity to give. When they spoke to those people—especially young people—about this reaction, researchers found out why. Teens would say things like: “I am sad enough in my life right now; I don’t want to be even sadder.”  Or, they’d say: “I’m fighting depression,” or “I am already overwhelmed with everything in my life, so I don’t need anything else to worry about.”

Very telling.

Too Much Exposure, Too Little Empathy

Usually, students are challenged by over-exposure, not by not being exposed enough.

Generation Z is overwhelmed and over-exposed. They are growing up in a world that is more isolated, more polarized and more de-humanized, by screens and content with which they’ve been exposed. Sadly, while we see more needs around us than ever, we’ve become more jaded by it at times. We feel “sad” and want to avoid sadness. Exposure without application can do that to anyone. The glass will always seem half-empty unless we choose to fill the glass.

Jamil Zaki believes we need to create an “Empathy Gymnasium.”

Building an Empathy Gymnasium for Generation Z

The only way people become stronger in any area is if they “work out” those muscles.

Here are five fundamentals we can insert into kids’ lives to kindle empathy in them:

1. Place them with people who are different.

One way to begin to develop empathy is to expose students to those who are different than them, so they begin to see that “different” doesn’t mean “bad.” As my kids grew up, we got them involved with an ethnically diverse theatre arts program; we also took them to feed homeless men and women downtown. They saw how “normal” those people are, very much like them in many ways.

2. Expose them to needs and suffering up close.

I took my children overseas for them to see war-torn Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s as well as low-income Kingston, Jamaica. Once they got up close and could not avoid the obvious—it had an impact on them. These exposures must be up-close and personal. Close enough for them to see, feel, smell and hear the needs of others. TV shows or YouTube are not enough.

3. Introduce them to problems that are unique.

Sometimes we withdraw in our comfort zones because we are unsure about the unknown. We feel unsafe or insecure. I found when students see unique problems that capture their imaginations, it cuts through the noise and clutter of their minds. It stands out when it’s different. One of my students grew passionate to get homeless people’s shoes when he saw how many had none.

4. Enable them to reflect on how it’s relevant.

Kids feel empathy when they reflect on the relevance of another’s suffering. Research works best when it’s “me-search,” involving needs they can identify with. My daughter was intrigued by diabetes as I allowed her to give me my insulin shots or test my blood sugars. We tried to demonstrate empathy when someone lost a loved or were hurt in some way. Their pain was our pain.

5. Help them take one step in response.

Empathy is cultivated when students observe suffering and it leads to action. In fact, the way we enable students to prevent becoming jaded or cynical is to find one action step whenever they see someone in pain. In Wafaa Bilal’s paintball experiment, he was heartened when anonymous people stopped by his gallery to replace a broken lamp or light bulb. The empathy muscle grows when information (about someone’s pain) leads to application.


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Five Ways to Develop Empathy in Generation Z