The other day I came across an article online which made for a thought-provoking read.
Schools in Denmark conduct empathy classes called Klassens tid for an hour every week, for kids aged 6 to 16 years. This set me thinking.
Before exploring this rather fascinating issue further, I wanted to understand what exactly is empathy.
According to Om Swami, A Monk and the author of several best sellers, ‘Sympathy is “I feel sorry for you”. Empathy is “I know how you feel”.’
In Denmark, empathy classes are an integral part of the school curriculum and are considered just as important as Maths or English lessons.
During the Klassens tid, students discuss their problems, related to school or otherwise. The whole class, along with the teacher, tries to find a solution based on real listening and understanding. If there are no problems to discuss, children simply spend the time together relaxing & enjoying.
Danish schools offer neither prizes nor trophies to their students who excel in school subjects or in sports, so as not to create competition. The only competition is with oneself. Each person is encouraged to be the best version of himself or herself.
Schools in Denmark also encourage collaborative learning. This consists of bringing together children with different strengths and weaknesses in various subjects to make them help each other in class. The method is meant to teach children from an early age that one cannot excel alone.
There is also an anti-bullying programme in Denmark that teaches 3- to 8-year-olds to talk about bullying and care for each other.
Now let us take a look at the situation in India.
In complete contrast to Denmark, competition is the heartbeat of our society and our culture. The entire lifecycle is punctuated by milestones, defined only in relation to others.
The kids have to be forever busy in getting ahead in the rodent race. The mission statement of one of the leading schools in our country reads: ‘The School enables students to compete with the world…they are taught in an environment which fosters a spirit of keen competition.’
Come on, are we living in the stone age where the only way a man could get his meat or his partner was by clubbing his adversary on his head?
Our education system has become so warped that there are coaching classes for admission into nursery and entrance exams to get into these coaching centres!
Whenever there is a discussion on empathy, I am reminded of an incident which happened some years ago.
My cousin Shekhar’s wife Richa asked me, “Dad’s first death anniversary is on the 31st. Can you suggest a temple where we can have the ceremony?”
“I thought for some time and then said, “There is an orphanage for special kids right next door to where we stay. Why not treat the kids to a nutritious meal? This would be far more fulfilling than feeding relatives and friends.”
She agreed and a ‘feast’ was organized for the differently-abled kids.
She sponsored the lunch and I made the arrangements. After the kids sat down I started serving them. Seeing me, my kids – Ankita and Aniket, who were barely 11 and 7, joined in. After we had served, we sat with them and ate our meal.
All this while Shekhar and Richa stood there like impeccably dressed models and watched. When they were in the space of sympathy, my kids and I were in the realm of empathy.
The children were thrilled with us. A couple of hours later they invited me and my kids to a cultural programme which they organized specially for us. That evening these kids who could neither speak nor hear put up a unique show for us comprising mimicry, acting and dancing. And believe me that New Year’s Eve was far more fulfilling than the earlier ones we spent in some random club singing and dancing.
I think that day my children, Ankita and Aniket, learnt a lot about empathy without me even attempting to teach them. Since then whenever we have to observe my dad’s death anniversary, we do it in an orphanage or a home for juvenile delinquents. A few years ago, Ankita observed it in a shelter for ‘man’s best friends’ in Bengaluru.