The first time I can remember intentionally practicing empathy, I was an eight-year-old, first-time camper sitting in a circle with my counselors and cabinmates inside our cabin just before bed. It was maybe the third night of camp. I had settled into camp and started to realize how funny my counselors Barry, Chuck, and Tico were, and that camp could be a blast. Everyone was chattering over each other.
Senior Counselor Barry raised his hand and we all fell silent. Chuck, Barry, and Tico became a little more serious and shared with us that we were all camp brothers and needed to look out for one another. They went on to describe a tradition where we would circle up before bed occasionally and have some share time. During those special moments in our bunk, time stopped and we all began to listen to each other more intently. A flashlight was passed around. Whoever had the flashlight “had the floor,” and everyone else was to be respectful and kind while the flashlight holder spoke.
We were encouraged to reflect on what was going well at camp and where we needed help. In those moments listening to my camp brothers, I learned to relate to their feelings of pride, anxiety, fear, frustration, sadness, friendship, and joy. I enjoyed this part of camp. I was learning to recognize diverse emotions in others and becoming more intuitive about how we could all live together successfully. The more I contributed to the group, the more I felt I belonged and the more concerned I felt for the welfare of my cabinmates. Altruism was perhaps the most powerful camp life lesson of all for me. This is when and where I began to practice servant leadership, which has been fundamental to my ethical code ever since.
Looking back, I am very grateful for these experiences so early in life. At camp, not only did I master outdoor living skills and tennis, but I absorbed emotional literacy, crafted an ethical identity, and cultivated moral courage. As I became adept at understanding what others were feeling, I honed communication and collaboration skills from countless hours of in-person social time with fellow campers.
In Psychology Today, Peter Gray, PhD, shares that over the past 30 years, researchers have been assessing both narcissism and empathy levels in thousands of college students (2014). Tragically, approximately 70 percent of students today score higher on narcissism and lower on empathy than did the average student 30 years ago (Konrath, O’Brien, & Hsing, 2011). Narcissism refers to having an inflated view of oneself and relative indifference to others. Healthy relationships require empathy. Respect and trust are critical in developing working relationships, but empathy is essential in forming highly effective teams. I think of empathy as an antonym for narcissism.
Educational foresight researchers today project that Generation Z youth must reverse this trend and become more empathetic to be highly successful in the forecasted human-centered economy of 2040 (Prince, Saveri, & Swanson, 2017). In the future, success at work will increasingly come from building social relationships of all kinds to support learning, collaboration, and innovation. To understand their behaviors, workers will need to be able to recognize others’ emotions and perspectives. Deep empathy will also be critical for building inclusive work environments that are truly collaborative, innovative, and adaptable.
Camp is an ideal setting in which to teach the value of others and diverse perspectives through community. It is the place to learn to express ideas and collaborate openly without fear of negative consequences.
At camp we learn to understand our own emotions when we practice seeing the world through the eyes of others. This practice leads to greater success in managing our nonproductive emotions and shifting to more productive emotional states. By centering our camp cultures on compassion, kindness, empathy, and altruism, we are preparing Generation Z to navigate new ideas and dynamic situations in the fast-changing world ahead of them.
Gray, P. (2014, January 16). Why is narcissism increasing among young Americans? Psychology Today. Retrieved from psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201401/why-is-narcissism-increasing-among-young-americans
Konrath, S. H., O’Brien, E. H., & Hsing, C. (2011). Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15, pp. 180–198.
Prince, K., Saveri, A., & Swanson, J. (2017, January 12). The future of learning: Redefining readiness from the inside out. KnowledgeWorks. Retrieved from https://knowledgeworks.org/resources/future-learning-redefining-readiness/