E Is For Empathy: Sesame Workshop Takes A Crack At Kindness

Oct 17, 2016
Originally published on October 17, 2016 8:14 pm

Parents and teachers are worried.

They believe that today's kids are growing up in an unkind world and that learning to be kind is even more important than getting good grades. But, when it comes to defining "kind," parents and teachers don't always agree.

That's according to a new survey of some 2,000 parents and 500 teachers from the educational nonprofit behind Sesame Street, Sesame Workshop.

Kindness is well-trod territory for Sesame. Here's actor Mark Ruffalo trying to teach a Muppet named Murray about a very big word: empathy.

The folks at Sesame Workshop worried that too much of the world doesn't understand empathy — or doesn't try hard enough to feel other people's pain.

"We ... were concerned what the long-term impact of that would be on children and society as children grow older," said Jeffrey D. Dunn, CEO of Sesame Workshop. "This survey confirms our concerns. It is time to have a national conversation about kindness."

Indeed, a whopping 86 percent of teachers (and 70 percent of parents) admitted to worrying often that the world is an unkind place for children.

And they want to do something about it, says Jennifer Kotler Clarke, who is in charge of research and evaluation at Sesame Workshop.

"Both parents and educators overwhelmingly felt that being kind was more important than having high academic achievement," says Kotler Clarke.

But kindness can mean different things to different people, and here's where the results get complicated. And more interesting.

Kotler Clarke says, for the survey, they used several words to represent kindness, including empathy — but also helping, thoughtful and manners. As a result, "parents generally felt that their children were kind, but less-so helpful and thoughtful."

How can a child be kind without being helpful or thoughtful? By being polite. It turns out that manners were very important to parents. When given a choice between having manners and having empathy and asked, "Which of these is more important for your child to be right now?" 58 percent chose manners compared with just 41 percent who chose empathy.

Kotler Clarke suggests that some parents may assume that teaching a child manners is a good way of building empathy. But, she says, "There's really no great evidence around that. In fact, bullies are very good at having manners around adults."

On this point, teachers broke with parents, overwhelmingly preferring empathy (63 percent) over manners (37 percent). And teachers can see the disconnect in their classrooms. Thirty-four percent say, of the children they teach, that all or most of their parents are raising kids to be empathetic and kind, while just 30 percent say all or most parents are raising children with values consistent with their teachers'.

As part of the survey's release, Sesame Workshop linked to a number of outside resources, for parents and teachers looking for practical ways to help cultivate empathy in kids.

In one guide from Harvard's Making Caring Common Project, researchers recommend grown-ups tune into kids' emotional and physical needs, hold regular family meetings and engage in community service.

Because the vast majority of parents and teachers agreed: It's important to be kind not just to your own family but to everyone else, too.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Think, for a moment, what you believe is more important for kids, getting good grades or being kind. A new survey from the educational nonprofit behind "Sesame Street" finds most parents and teachers answer kindness to that question. They're worried that today's children are growing up in an unkind world, as Cory Turner of the NPR Ed Team reports.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Kindness is well-trod territory for "Sesame Street." Here's actor Mark Ruffalo pretending to stub his toe to teach a Muppet named Murray about one key to kindness, empathy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

MARK RUFFALO: Murray. Murray...

JOEY MAZZARINO: (As Murray Monster) Oh, that hurts...

RUFFALO: It hurts so much...

MAZZARINO: (As Murray Monster) I can imagine exactly how you feel. Ow.

RUFFALO: That's it.

MAZZARINO: (As Murray Monster) What - what's it?

RUFFALO: That's it. That's empathy.

MAZZARINO: (As Murray Monster) What's empathy?

RUFFALO: You could imagine exactly how I feel. You could understand just how it felt. That's empathy.

TURNER: But the people at Sesame Workshop worry that too much of the world doesn't understand empathy or doesn't try hard enough to feel other people's pain. The survey of some 2,000 parents and 500 teachers found lots of grownups in the U.S. share that fear. A whopping 86 percent of teachers admitted to worrying often that the world is an unkind place for children. And they want to be sure they're helping raise kids into kind, empathetic adults. Jennifer Kotler Clarke is in charge of content research and evaluation at Sesame Workshop.

JENNIFER KOTLER CLARKE: Both parents and educators overwhelmingly felt that being kind was more important than having high academic achievement.

TURNER: But kindness can mean different things to different people. And here's where the results get really interesting. Kotler Clarke says for the survey, they used several different words to represent kindness, including empathy, but also helping, thoughtful and manners.

CLARKE: Parents generally felt that their children were kind but less so helpful and thoughtful.

TURNER: How can a child be kind without being helpful or thoughtful? Well, for parents, being polite was really important. Teachers, on the other hand, valued a different kind of kindness.

CLARKE: Teachers overwhelmingly chose empathy as being more important than manners, where as parents we're more likely to choose manners over empathy.

TURNER: Prioritizing manners over empathy might not be a big deal, assuming there's research that says manners are a good way of building empathy. But Kotler Clarke says...

CLARKE: There's really no great evidence around that. In fact, bullies are very good at having manners around adults.

TURNER: As part of the survey's release, Sesame Workshop also linked to a number of outside resources for parents and teachers looking for practical ways to help cultivate empathy in kids. In one guide from Harvard's Making Caring Common project, researchers recommend grownups really try to tune in to kids emotional and physical needs, engage in community service and even hold regular family meetings. That way, we can have more moments like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

MAZZARINO: (As Murray Monster) Yes, I get it.

RUFFALO: Yes. Yes...

MAZZARINO: (As Murray Monster) I understand empathy.

RUFFALO: You understand empathy, Murray...

MAZZARINO: (As Murray Monster) I'm so happy right now.

RUFFALO: I'm happy too...

MAZZARINO: (As Murray Monster) It makes me want to dance the dance of happiness.

TURNER: Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.