What are empathy runs?
Empathy Runs are a brief exercise specifically designed to stimulate empathy in children. There is a program for schools and one for parents with their children.
In this age of distraction, anxiety and electronic devices most children are overstimulated and their ability to empathise is severely impacted. Children need the comfort and security of being part of living, shared community in order to make sense of the wild ride that is childhood and to establish the social skills they will rely on for the rest of their lives. That means being part of the natural environment and spending quality time with their parents or schoolmates so they can learn not just social skills but feel the security that comes from feeling connected.
Empathy Runs for Schools is a simple question and answer process conducted during a brief run. The running helps distract the children from whatever reservations they may have and also adds sense of momentum to the session. The Empathy Runs process is carefully designed to activate empathic relating.
Empathy Runs for Parents helps you to get closer to your children and teaches them how to get closer to others. Empathy Runs offer you a chance to get your child talking, asking questions and opening up, as well as teaching them how to listen and ask questions.
What is empathy and why is it so important?
Roman Krznaric, an internationally recognised expert on empathy, defines it as “the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions”. Sounds familiar enough right? We’re all “doing” it so where’s the problem? Research from the University of Michigan shows a dramatic decline in empathy among students over the last 30 years, with the steepest decline reported in the last 10 years.
Psychologists, parents and teachers are reporting an empathy crisis among the young. No one is sure what is influencing this dramatic change – it could overuse of technology/gaming, superficial networks of friends, reduced participation in clubs and other social organisations. People seem to be living busier and busier lives as meals and conversations are cut short. “Fast living” is living is limiting our opportunities to relate to one another, to the point that some have forgotten what that really looks like while others have never known.
The good news is that the researchers at the university of Michigan believe that empathy is highly fluid, meaning that it can potentially increase as easily as it decreases. Empathy Runs help you develop your child’s empathy and your relationship with them but make no mistake, the most important change agent is your own behaviour. If you struggle to find the time to sit down with your partner, or are too stressed or preoccupied to ask about their day, then you may be part of the problem not the solution.
Empathy runs for schools
Children learn best from bite sized chucks of information. For that reason, Empathy Runs are short and simple. Children are paired up, with one being given the role of listener and the other the job of asking questions. In the next session the same two children reverse the roles.
Each session has one simple question – it might have to do with holidays or favourite foods or family life. At the end of the session the listening child reflects back to the class or to his/her partner a rough synopsis of what they have heard. In this way the listening child is taught to listen properly – that means not interrupting, not bringing the conversation back to themselves, but instead really hearing what is going on inside another.
They are also taught the skill of “laddering” – the simple process of going deeper by asking, for example, why the holiday was good, what it was about it that made them happy and in what way…
In this way children are taught to step inside the lives of each other – even if for only a few minutes. The process reveals to them their own abilities and interest in relating to others. Kids are often surprised by what they discover about each other and it is through moments like these that greater empathy develops.
As the children get to know one another better, Empathy Runs also help keep the peace in the classroom as well as improving levels of concentration. Evidence from empathy training for children has shown that it results in greater ‘pro-social’ behaviour’ – like helping and sharing, as well as improved grades, reduced bullying, and better relationships between students and parents.
Empathy runs for parents
Exercise, and running in particular, is an ideal way to improve your relationship with your children and to help them through what can often be trying stages in their young lives. Empathy Runs create a bridge between you, giving you a fun opportunity to discuss what is happening in both of your lives. Running also serves as a sort of distraction, helping them to stay focused and open up. Children are also often quite excited to be running with the adults, meaning they begin from a positive and confident place.
When you open up your adult world of running to them, children will often respond to your invitation by opening their world to you. Your child will find this special time, this sense of a shared experience, just the two of you, as incredibly bonding. Couple that with pride that comes from “getting it done” and doing so in front of you, and you end up with a motivated and rejuvenated child.
Together you will experience flowing hormones such as endorphins, adrenalin, and the “love hormone” oxytocin, further bonding the two of you. Oxytocin in particular facilitates closeness, giving you an opportunity to jump start your connection through exercise alone. But is time, the greatest gift you can give your child, that will make the most difference. When they see you have dedicated this chunk of the day to them and them alone, it creates a sense of trust and bonding.
The comradery of running with you will help your child to share with you troubling topics like bullying, dating, feeling too big or small or unattractive, not being one of the cool kids, having a stutter etc. Issues which might otherwise remain undiscussed and become developmental problems instead get a chance to be aired and shared. And added advantage of running together is the lack of direct eye contact – children can find this threatening when confiding about difficult subjects.
Empathy Runs for Parents includes a mindfulness process called “grounding” which provides you both with not just an opportunity to settle into the moment you are sharing but also to address any topics that may be important to you at that time. The pack comes with suggestions on how to make the process fun, how to get the most out of it, and a list of important questions through which you can get to know more about what is happening inside your child.
Some children, especially those who are out of shape or unsure of themselves, may struggle at first. They have the most to gain from DRT. Included in the pack are ways to make the exercises you to do together fun, making the initial sessions less painful. In time most children will come to enjoy the open air, the green spaces and the closeness that comes from being with you.
Other children may hate exercise or find the idea of spending time with you like this “very uncool”. For this reason, we suggest you tailor your approach to your child – start them slowly, make it fun, play one of the games based exercises so that it’s entertaining. You may want to bring the dog, if you have one, or perhaps start with walking instead of running. Find out what works.
The greatest gift you can give your child is a sense of being seen and heard – Empathy Runs gives you time together to make that happen. The best way to teach empathy is to example it in front of them. In other words, your child learns empathy through your being empathic with them, taking an interest in what is really going on inside them. What children want more than anything from their parents is their attention and time.
Why the outdoors matters so much
Nature provides the ideal space for you to connect – children have a natural affinity for the outdoors which makes you connecting with them that much easier. But this needs to be fostered – in his 2005 book, The Last Child in the Woods, the writer Richard Louv introduced the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the growing gap between nature and children. It is our responsibility to bridge this gap, to introduce children to the wonderment that is outside so that the wonderment that is inside them has an appropriate space in which to express itself and play.
There is a direct link between exposure to the outdoors and mental health. In Japan there are now 44 Shinrin-yoku forests – dedicated woods where people go to commune with nature and bathe in the healing microbes and phytoncides that flow from the plants, soil and trees. More and more research is revealing the importance that nature plays in our personal eco-systems. The problem is not only that many children are not getting enough exposure to the outdoors but also what is happening instead.
Most parents won’t need to be told about the impact of electronics on their children and the family as a whole. They will have had front row seats to the fighting and tears these games can create. As the outside is substituted for electronic devices on the inside, it is not just the planet that loses its bio-diversity, but your children too. As not just their lives but yours too becomes more high-tech it is critical that a natural balance be achieved. Empathy Runs are an efficient and enjoyable way to achieve that balance, doing so through connection, natural biology, and the ever available environment.
William Pullen B.Sc., M.A., MBACP (Accred)
William Pullen practices psychotherapy in West London, UK. He specialises in individual therapy for adults and young people dealing with such issues as depression, motivation, anxiety, life changes, relationship problems and addiction.