Posted by: Martin Fox | October 1, 2009

Teaching our children empathy and compasson – Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn on

Music to our ears. Awakening empathy and compassion around the world is the critical component to changing the way the world works. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn are amazing agents for change in our world. If you haven’t read their new book yet, pick up Half the Sky – it is a great read.

Peace out – Martin Fox with the Center for Global Leadership

One Earth, One People, One Global Community – learn more about our Center’s work at

20090925-tows-nicholas-kristof-sheryl-wu-dunn-290x218A Word to Parents
From Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

There are few things more important for a child to learn than empathy. Yet children don’t attend school classes in empathy, and they don’t become compassionate because that’s what we tell them to be. Rather, they pick up empathy from our actions.

In Nicholas’s case, he developed his interest in global poverty perhaps in part because his parents always sponsored a child through Plan USA, exchanging letters and sometimes visits, and always encouraged him to “trick or treat for UNICEF.” We have likewise tried to model behavior that will encourage our three kids to think of others around the world who have needs that the average American child can barely imagine.

We too sponsor a child through Plan USA (our current sponsored child is in the Dominican Republic). Nick’s parents regularly send our kids Christmas gifts through Heifer International, such as a few chickens presented to an African family in each of their names.

We also used the advance from our new book, Half the Sky, to build a middle school in a Cambodian village that never had one before. Then we traveled as a family to Cambodia over the last Christmas vacation for the school opening, with each of our kids speaking at the ceremony.

Whenever we can, we also have taken our kids to see how others sometimes must live, so that they connect the idea of poverty to real people—just like them—that they have actually met. Once they have attached a face to hunger or homelessness, it becomes much more real. Indeed, because of our jobs as journalists, we’ve taken the kids into unusual situations—interviewing underground Christians in China who had been arrested and tortured, North Korean children in hiding, Kenyans brutalized during ethnic riots and Sudanese children suffering from diseases and parasites because they have the misfortune to live in an impoverished country. Few parents have the chance to expose their children to these sights directly, and not every parent would want to, but indirect exposure through books and films is possible for anyone. And in our experience, children aren’t traumatized by these encounters but awakened.

When our eldest son was in the fourth grade, we took him with me into China to a rural area ravaged by AIDS. We met a widow dying of AIDS who worried what would happen to her son after she died. Seeing that her boy was the same age as our son, she tried to give her child to us. That memory still stirs in our son eight years later. And when we were in Cambodia on our last trip, we introduced our kids to some victims of sex trafficking whom we had written about. Later, when Nick was preparing a small gift for a brothel owner whom he was about to interview—the gift was meant to ingratiate himself into her brothel—our daughter was outraged. “Those people are evil,” she told us indignantly. “You shouldn’t give a brothel owner a gift!” And we were proud of her for saying so.

Look, we can’t pretend that teaching empathy is easy, or that any of these approaches have worked perfectly. I’d love to say that after seeing impoverished kids in Cambodia who were desperately eager to go to school, our own kids suddenly came to see school as an opportunity rather than a burden. Not true: They still don’t bound out of bed on school days with smiles on their faces. But the cumulative effect of an exposure to the needy at home and abroad, coupled with encouragement to engage in efforts to make a difference, has had some impact on their thinking and behavior.

One of the things that parents learn is that children never turn out exactly as we intend: There’s no magic formula for childrearing. But modeling empathy does make a difference, and it’s one more reason why we ourselves are often the greatest beneficiaries when we reach out and try to help the neediest around the world.



  1. Teaching compassion and empathy is a great thing. I suggest reading into Paul Ekman’s work.

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