Lisa Belkin posted on her Motherlode blog the question, Can You Teach Empathy to Children? As someone who has spent the better half of the past five years trying to do just that, and the better half of the past year also writing about how to do just that, my answer is, "I sure hope so!" I see her point, but I think the question is better phrased this way: Can You Teach Empathy to Children by Requiring them to do Service Projects? To that, I think my answer would be "Not really."
In theory, service requirements are good, I guess. Get children out there, in the real world, and maybe they'll learn a bit about how good they really have it while making a positive contribution to their communities. The problem is, I think it often loses something in the translation. They see service learning as another thing to add to college applications, and don't really commit themselves to the cause. Instead of immersing themselves in a cause they really believe in, they often look for the project requiring the least commitment and effort they can get away with. The fact of the matter is that kids who would get something out of it would do it anyway, and the ones who wouldn't, well, I think the non-profit sector is often better off without them.
But as for the question of whether we can teach empathy to children, now that's something altogether different. Research shows that by modeling empathy and respect for self and others, by practicing autonomy-supportive parenting, by nurturing creativity and critical thinking among our children, they are more likely to be empathetic and to reach high levels of moral functioning. But it's not a six hour investment, please sign my time log and thank you very much. It's a lifelong investment that we, as parents, begin to make from the moment our children are born by treating them with empathy, respect and love.