In the course of the writing and research for Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers, and meeting thousands of nonreligious parents in my talks and workshops, I gradually developed a list of nine best practices for nonreligious parenting. They are:

  1. Encourage wider circles of empathy. 
  2. Encourage active moral development. 
  3. Promote ravenous curiosity.
  4. Teach engaged co-existence. 
  5. Encourage religious literacy. 
  6. Leave kids unlabeled. 
  7. Make death natural and familiar. 
  8. Invite the questioning of authority. 
  9. Normalize disbelief.

I’ve already dedicated episodes to some of these, like curiosity and labels and questioning authority. Today, let’s talk about empathy.

Your real job

Toni Morrison used to tell her students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.”

As I record this, former president Donald Trump has been indicted for what should be the first of many crimes. After years of impunity, it feels at last like there’s a chance of accountability. It’ll take years for all of the trials to play out. And at the end of it, even if everything goes right, he will only have answered for legal crimes. His moral crimes will go unpunished—among them the incredible lack of empathy he and his supporters showed to vulnerable people.

The desperate failure of empathy in the Trump administration made past presidential failures of empathy seem a little bit…adorable. George Bush Sr was excoriated, unfairly, I think, for not knowing the price of a gallon of milk, and John McCain wasn’t sure how many houses he owned. Barack Obama complained about the price of arugula. Each of them was pegged as an elitist who couldn’t empathize with common people. So it’s an old game.

But under Trump, it was separated families, deportations, slashing health care for the most vulnerable, demonizing people by race or religion…

So, yeah. There’s an empathy problem. And helping to turn that around by raising empathetic kids has been important to me as a parent.

Empathy is not the same as sympathy. As William Safire put it, “Sympathy feels pity for another person’s troubles…empathy identifies with what’s going on in their mind.” That’s different. “When you’re sympathetic, your arm goes around the shoulders of others; when you’re empathetic, your mind lines up with what’s going on inside their heads.”

Almost everybody feels empathy to some degree and at some point in their lives. For a long time, it was thought that infants are completely self-centered, and empathy emerged sometime in the second year. But more recently there has been research indicating that newborns already register feelings of empathetic concern toward the mother. If she appears anxious or in pain, it registers immediately with the child.

So at whatever point, most kids are eventually exhibiting some degree of empathy, which psychologist Nancy Eisenberg defines as “comprehension of another’s emotional state, similar to what the other person would be expected to feel.”

That sentence might ring some bells if you’re familiar with the research on mirror neurons—still inconclusive, but really intriguing.

Mirrors in your head

Here’s the deal: In your head are neurons that fire whenever you experience something, right? You pick up your phone, or yawn, or slam your shin into a trailer hitch, and neurons respond. No news there. But according to compelling research, these same neurons also fire when you see someone else picking up a phone, yawning, or slamming a shin. They’re called mirror neurons, and they have the powerful capacity to make you feel what somebody else is feeling.

You can see the roots of empathy, sympathy, compassion, conscience, cooperation, guilt, and a lot of other tendencies in that neural system. If your kids wither under your disapproval, like ours do, that’s partially due to mirror neurons. They are feeling the condemnation from both sides at once. Empathizing with someone else’s anger or disappointment toward you translates into a kind of self-anger or self-disappointment that we call guilt or conscience. No need for a supernatural agent.

So empathy itself is already in us. But our natural tendency is to feel empathy for those who are closest to us, and those who are most like us.

Our connection, our compassion, and our empathy tend to drop as we move outward through concentric communities, or when we interact with those who are different from us. That creates what has been called an “empathy gradient.”  We tend to feel closest to and most protective of those who are closely related or otherwise similar to us—that’s natural selection at work—followed by those who live nearby but might be less similar. For people living far away, or those who are unlike us in other ways, we tend to feel a reduction in natural empathy.

Spending time with people who are different can help, but it doesn’t always lead to increased empathy and understanding by itself. It helps to also have a common goal, as Muzafer Sherif found out in his famous “Robbers Cave Experiment”.[1] In the experiment, two groups of boys at a summer camp were organized into competing teams. The experimenters tried to break down the animosity between the groups by having the boys spend time together. But instead of decreased animosity, they got food fights in the dining hall. What succeeded in breaking down the barriers between the groups were situations in which both groups had to work together to accomplish something that everyone wanted. It took work from both groups, for example, to pull the camp truck when it wouldn’t start. And that experience helped to create a measurable empathetic bond.

Several more recent studies have come to similar conclusions, like Gaertner and Dovidio.[2]  For example, recognizing our cross-cutting social identities and larger shared identities have both been shown to lead to more cooperation and fairer outcomes in social dilemma situations, where there’s a limited resource that people have to allocate and share.[3]

Stick a pin in that one for a minute.

Expanding the circle

I think our goal as humanists should be not just building the inner circles of community, but pushing that sense of connectedness out across as many boundaries as possible.

I’d argue that moral development is measurable by how far outward real empathy extends into those circles. So I encourage my kids not just to think about how a person of a different gender, color, nationality, or worldview feels or thinks, but to really see themselves in that person — to get those mirror neurons working.

And there’s no reason to stop at the species. One of the biggest implications of evolution is a profound connectedness to the rest of life on Earth.

I like religious ideas that reinforce connectedness, as well as seeing the self in others. “See the Buddha in all things” is an example. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is another. But so many traditional ideas — religious, cultural, political — instead tap our evolved fears to draw lines between people, defining in-groups and out-groups and outlining colorful punishments for those on the wrong side of that line. Having “dominion over the earth” doesn’t help, and Deuteronomy and Revelation are dedicated almost entirely to defining, judging, and annihilating the hated Other. That’s bad news for empathy. Being free of those dogmas is helpful, but it’s not enough.

So how do we do it? How do we help our kids widen the scope of their empathy?

In Raising Freethinkers, my co-author Molleen Matsumura described the importance of helping your child develop “emotional literacy” — recognizing, expressing, respecting, and responding to their own feelings and those of other people. With young kids, you can start by naming emotions: hers, yours, those of characters in stories and of the people around them.

“Can you imagine what that would feel like?” is an invitation to empathize. It also prepares your child to be a defender against bullying and marginalization, not a perpetrator.

An introduction to diversity starts with differences that we don’t usually think of as social diversity—like the different size and abilities of younger siblings, or differences in taste.

Comfort with difference develops from there. The more familiar kids are with diverse communities—ethnic diversity, language, gender, sexual orientation, and more—the better glimpse they have of what the world looks like to someone in that community. My kids spend almost every moment of their lives in the racial and cultural and economic majority. It wasn’t until we took them to services at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church for which Martin Luther King Sr and Jr were pastors, and sat in a nearly 100% black congregation, that my kids had a semblance of the minority experience. It was the first thing my son said when we got into the car: He was about 12, and he said, “It felt so weird to be the only white people there.” And I said “yeah, some people feel like that most of the time.” That was it, no big lecture.

I’m not suggesting they now had an understanding of the black experience. This was a 90-minute glimpse of one tiny aspect of that experience. But it opened a window of empathy on that aspect, that feeling of not being in the constant majority.

We went once a year for several years. The church is part of the MLK National Historical Park, which includes his birthplace and the King Center. If you’re ever in Atlanta, it’s really worth visiting. And if you’re there on a Sunday, the services at the church are just about the best I’ve seen—not because of anything supernatural, but because of the deep and real sense of connection among the people, something so many churches only pretend to achieve. I have more to say about that experience, but I’ll save that for the episode on religious literacy.

Which brings me to another empathy question—empathy for religious people, for the religious impulse.

There but for the grace etc.

I really don’t feel drawn to much of anything religion has to offer, and for many years I didn’t understand why anyone else was drawn to it, except out of tradition or habit or fear or a consolation that I felt was pretty obviously false. I didn’t get it. Then at some point I got serious about really trying to empathize with it all, to see it not from my perspective but from theirs. I started to realize that a lot of privilege has put me on this side of the religious divide. Most of what has made it possible for me to find my way clear of religion has been unearned—a combination of upbringing and genetics and experience and education and personal security…and then sure, I went the extra ten percent to make it happen. But I think we congratulate ourselves too much for that 10%, ignoring the things that made it possible for us to walk away…then expecting those who are still in the pews to pull themselves out by their bootstraps, just like we did.

Almost no one I know who is traditionally religious has had all of the same specific privileges that helped me end up where I have. Realizing that gives me more empathy for the religious impulse. I still fight against the toxic effects, including the effects it’s having on politics right now, but that is not mutually exclusive with empathy for the people on the inside. And my kids have a long head start on that combination.

Some recent research has shown that the depersonalization and rapid input of the internet and social media – neither of which we are evolved to handle—can reduce the empathetic response in kids, something that can easily bleed into offline life. So much of their time is spent in environments that lack the direct emotional cues, like face-to-face contact and voice tone, that make empathy easier. And that can have a deadening effect that we have to watch out for.

But the internet is also a great resource for helping kids expand their natural empathy. In addition to the way it can help them intersect communities they wouldn’t otherwise have contact with, you can find fantastic resources online. Google “empathy activities” for some great ideas from Edutopia, Teaching Tolerance, and the Minneapolis Public Schools among others. Some of these activities have found their way to Unitarian fellowships and Ethical Societies and schools…and Camp Quest. At Camp Quest West, for example, campers get insight into living with impaired vision by putting on safety glasses covered with opaque tape, and then trying to navigate the world around them with their remaining senses. There are countless direct experiences like this that for your kids to try.

Raising empathetic kids has always been important, but I’ve felt a particular urgency in recent years. Societies often withdraw into themselves in the face of war, or depression, or plague or famine. That’s when isolationism kicks in, and the drawbridge goes up, and outsiders are demonized, no matter what kind of hell they are living through. That’s when the ring of empathy contracts. That circle gets smaller.

But the US is in a time of relative peace and prosperity and social stability. And STILL it took very little to raise that drawbridge and start seeing threats everywhere. Suddenly empathy becomes a luxury.

The coming test

If it’s that easy to hobble our empathy in times of relative security, what is going to happen between the global haves and have-nots when climate change creates a REAL crisis of resources and security? Will my kids clutch their privileges to themselves and their inner circle? Or will they feel pulled by empathy to sacrifice and share what they have with people in desperate need halfway around the globe, and right across the border, and within their own communities? Will they just feel sympathy, and donate tokens to salve their guilt, or will the shared pain keep them up at night, looking for solutions? Will they recognize our larger shared identities when there’s “a limited resource that people have to allocate and share”?

I don’t really know. My kids are young adults now, and they are compassionate, generous people. But the climate crisis is going to test our ability, all of us, to feel what other people feel in an unprecedented way.

I really hope we’re up to it.

[1] Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation: The Robbers Cave Experiment. Muzafer Sherif, O. J. Harvey, B. Jack White, William R. Hood, Carolyn W. Sherif (1954/1961) 

[2] Gaertner, S. L., Dovidio, J. F., Anastasio, P. A., Bachman, B. A., & Rust, M. C. (1993).  The common ingroup identity model: Recategorization and the reduction of intergroup bias.  in W. Stroebe & M. Hewstone (eds.), European Review of Social Psychology (Vol. 4, pp. 1-26). Wiley.

[3] Witt, A. P., & Kerr, N. L. (2002).  “Me versus just us versus us all”: Categorization and cooperation in nested social dilemmas.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 616-637.

Avatar photo

Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...