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Learning Empathy by Showing Empathy

Author Cornelia Maude Spelman draws from the story of "Oliver Twist" to show how children learn empathy.

By Cornelia Maude Spelman

Cornelia is the author of "The Way I Feel" series of picture books for children and is a former social worker. Her website is

August 27, 2013

I recently watched the 1948 movie version of “Oliver Twist.” Oliver is an orphan, raised in an English workhouse, which essentially requires slavery for food and shelter. Then at about age eight, Oliver is sold to an undertaker as an “apprentice,” where he is also treated cruelly.

He runs away and gets taken up by a gang of street boys bossed by the unsavory adult criminal Fagin, who teaches the boys to thieve. Then, because he gets hit in the face by an adult and mistakenly arrested, he comes to the attention of a caring gentleman, who takes him to his home where Oliver is attended by a loving old woman housekeeper.

When Oliver awakens from his injury-induced stupor in a clean, soft bed with the kind old woman tending to him, he suddenly throws his arms around her.  What a profound relief it is, to the viewer, to see someone finally demonstrating empathy!

In real life, a child mistreated as was Oliver might not be able to respond to kindness.  I recall the child I once worked with when I was a therapist, who would duck when his new foster parents approached his crib. In the years that I knew him, he could not respond to their loving gestures.  Probably, as was not then known, his brain development had been affected by the cruelty he had experienced as a very young child.

We learn empathy by being shown empathy. And most of us are able to respond and to then show empathy for others.  Every child needs at least one person who is kind.  Those of us who teach, who work with children and families might be in a position to be that crucial kind person who could make all the difference in a child’s life.