How do you teach empathy to a child?

Nicola Ramsey

When I was a little kid, I remember sitting down with my granddad to look at a tiny toy dresser that he had given me for my dollhouse. "Just imagine," he said, between puffs on his pipe, "this was made by a little Chinaman, sitting in a dark and smoky room there in Hong Kong, gluing the little pieces together by hand—every day, just gluing these little pieces together for pennies."

Together we marvelled at the time and effort the little "Chinaman" had put in making this exquisite piece of furniture. Together we wondered about his world, so far away.

My grandfather came to Canada from England as an orphan. Working for the Bank of Commerce, he met and married my grandmother, a fifth generation Canadian who had recently arrived to pioneer in the Peace country. As they left behind their known worlds for their grand adventure, globalization and pluralism were powerful forces in their lives, even if they were not words in my grandparents’ vocabulary.

In the First World War, granddad reached the Front, from where he dispatched a steady stream of postcards and letters describing the people and way of life he found. My grandmother journeyed across the Atlantic to be closer to him and got a job in a munitions plant outside of London. In retirement, granddad relieved bank managers in the far north and sent home letters describing what he found.

My grandparents’ legacy was not lost on me. My husband and I met in Shanghai, and we have since dragged our children through North, South and Central America, Europe and Asia. As I walked the streets of Hong Kong with my own small daughters, I wondered about that Chinese labourer, sitting in his dark workroom. His reality was not so different from the one my granddad and I envisioned.

How do you teach empathy to a child?

My grandfather inspired me to imagine the life of a man whose days were spent gluing together children’s toys for a meagre living. Together, we explored a foreign territory that was at once strange and enchanting, yet one to which we were deeply connected. Even though he did not realize the term "Chinaman" was somehow less acceptable than the term "Englishman," his respect for other cultures was readily apparent. Although he had never heard the term "global citizenship," he understood that it entails both an appreciation of the life-enriching power of diversity and outrage at disparity.

I only hope I have been able to do for my own children and my students what my grandfather did for me.

Nicola Ramsey is a frequent contributor to Moot Points. She is presently working for the Alberta Distance Learning Centre.