“To combat feelings of exclusion, the Parent Teacher Association is trying to curtail a longstanding tradition of seventh graders and eighth graders showing up en masse Monday morning wearing the personalized sweatshirts handed out to the popular crowd at the weekend's bar or bat mitzvahs.” These words do not speak about any local Yeshiva you might know. And, they do not even come from an article in the Jewish Standard. They are actually words from an article in the New York Times (4/5/09) called “Gossip Girls and Boys Get Lessons in Empathy” describing a campaign at Scarsdale Middle School. The article goes on to describe how the focus of the year in the school is empathy- whether a discussion in their literature classes how a character in Romeo and Juliet was empathic, getting involved with the elderly and the disabled, and of course, the Bar/Bat Mitzah sweatshirt campaign.
The article struck me as the Scarsdale school is a “high- performing district with few discipline problems” similar to our Yeshivot. And, yet they are attempting to “groom children to be better citizens and leaders by making them think twice before engaging in the name-calling, gossip and other forms of social humiliation that usually go unpunished...'As as a school, we've done a lot of work with human rights,'said Michael McDermott, the middle school principal. 'But you can't have kids saving Darfur and isolating a peer in the lunchroom. It all has to go together.'”
That is the essence of empathy part II. As you read last week, our children have begun a relationship with the Hackensack Homeless Shelter. And, yet for most of our children it is “easy” for them to empathize with the homeless whose lives they feel are removed from them. The real success of teaching empathy is if they can generalize those feelings of empathy to their classmates, teachers, siblings and even parents. For some, that step is very difficult. That is our focus in our sessions in school and can be the focus in our homes.
The sweatshirts issue has always struck me as our students too come to school with sweatshirts, kippot etc, the Monday after a simcha, although, it can be nice to see the pride the children have in their friends' smachot as they wear them to school. The difference, we stress to our children, is in how they wear those items. Is it meant to be exclusionary? And, by enlarge, our students do a great job at thinking about whom they are inviting to their Bar/Bat Mitzvah, considering the policy of not leaving out a few kids out of a group that is invited. This is a topic we pointedly speak to them about in Advisory- how do you go about making your invite list? How does it feel to be one of the few boys not invited when all the boys are? What if you don't get along with someone- do you still have to invite him/her (a hot topic that always comes up)? The basic message they get from us and you, their parents, is that it is not a true simcha if the feelings of others are hurt.
In Scarsdale, with the focus on empathy as we are doing this year, they have found a change in behavior. As of the time the article was written, administrators heard only three complaints about bullying on buses as opposed to at lest 3 a month the previous year. It is often the children who have more privileged lives who have a harder time with empathy.
The Times article continued that some of the students complained that the school was trying to interfere with what they wear and to control how they act in their “personal lives.” Others have been cynical and asserted that you cannot teach a “mean girl” to be empathic. (Both interesting conversations to have with your children). The answer is that you cannot force empathy on the children, but it is a process of raising awareness and a partnership between home and school where the students are hearing the same messages from home.