Smart Empathy

Winter 2010

By Wendy Mogel

Walking down Wabash Street in Chicago last fall, I stopped to admire a grand Gothic-Moorish building with the words MEDINA spelled out in terra cotta blocks under a majestic dome. Turning the corner, I saw another sign at the front entrance: BLOOMINGDALE’S HOME. In an article announcing the opening of the store, the property owner stated, “The 140,000-square-foot Medina Temple property had been owned by the Shriners, but was out-of-date for its original purpose as an auditorium and was unused.” The paradox of the repurposing of the building hit me when I went inside. It was lovely, quiet… and empty of customers. Even those who find uplift in retail therapy were staying away.

Times are tough all around. 

In my 35 years working in and around independent schools I’ve never heard as many sad stories as of late. I’m not talking about the sad-style stories of parents inappropriately asking schools to make their lives easier in some way. I’m talking about the real heartbreakers. 

Take, for example, the family accustomed to paying their two children’s tuition with income from the father’s bonuses alone and then reaching into their pockets to cover the full tuition for a scholarship student. Now, even with mother working full time, the family finds itself short. A handwritten letter from their shy fourth grader is tucked into the packet of financial-aid forms. It begins: “Ten reasons I love [this school] and ten reasons I hope you will let me stay.” But, when the numbers are crunched, this family does not qualify for financial aid.

There’s the reaction of a lower school head upon learning that one of her students, an unusually sweet-natured, able, and hardworking sixth grader from a low-income family, has been waitlisted at every secondary school to which she applied while full-pay classmates of lesser academic credentials receive multiple offers.

There’s the anguish felt by a third grade teacher on hearing this question posed by a parent: “We’re in a bit of a tough spot right now. The medical insurance provided by my wife’s new job won’t cover treatment for the recurrence of her cancer. Marissa’s birthday is coming up in three weeks. I know this isn’t really a school-type problem, but any ideas about how to do a low-cost party that the other kids would still find fun?”

One financial aid officer I interviewed for this article said, “It’s been a very unusual time around here. One third more of our full-pay families are applying for aid than in any time in the past. Usually the tissue box on the desk in my office lasts a whole year. This year, I’ve gone through a few already. Some days I’m so tired that I think about walking away and becoming a surfing instructor.”

Independent schools have always had families facing hardships. But now, so many of the troubles have troubles: illness plus loss of insurance coverage, school placement competition plus limited tuition funds, the normal stresses of raising a family plus financial insecurity. And these mounting worries are creating a new dilemma for schools. 

In his book Bowling Alone, published in 2000, before the current economic downturn, Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard University, described how the collapse of American civic, political, and social organizations (Rotary Clubs, the League of Women Voters, bowling leagues, and even the frequency with which people give dinner parties or attend Sunday picnics) has created a sense of disconnection and social isolation, a loss of what he calls “social capital.” 

The loss of Shriners and bowling leagues didn’t have a negative impact on independent schools in the flush years of the past two decades. On the contrary, schools graciously — and perhaps eagerly — filled in the social gap. Besides a broad menu of committee opportunities, parents were invited to be involved in community-service projects for families, picnics, parties, career-day lessons, parent education programs, and camping trips. These levels and types of involvement strengthened the community and created great parental loyalty and generosity. Schools flourished as social hubs and a source of identity for families. But now, facing an increasingly competitive, unsettled, anxious world, the school-parent relationship has become increasingly tense — too close and, at the same time, too indulgent, insensitive, and shortsighted for the health of either party. Some of the parental expectations that were fostered and encouraged in times of economic abundance are now depleting the emotional coffers and patience of school leaders and the resources of schools. How far should a school go in helping families with their myriad problems? Where are the lines now?

Empathy is admirable. In A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink even describes it as one of the six essential qualities necessary for success in the 21st century. But schools need to get smarter about how and when and in what form they provide support for their families.

You’re My Everything: Perils of Closeness

People who choose to work in schools are, by nature, eager to help others. But institutions are weakened by trying to be all things to all people. As in marriages in which a partner is expected (or tries to be) a best friend, business consultant, decorator, thrilling playmate, moral barometer, accountant, and shrink, your greatest assets get diluted or overlooked when you aren’t forthright and firm about your talents, interests, and limits. Even those with great intentions, big hearts, and high energy can’t sustain such broad, unrelenting demands. A school’s commitment to parents is to educate the children it admits as best it can. If administrators and staff act as payday loan windows, pastoral counselors, marriage therapists, experts in every special need, and all-around pals, it isn’t possible to do much of anything very well. Schools don’t have the time, the money, or the expertise.

Almost every administrator I talk to tells me about his or her own jitters: diminished endowments or stalled construction projects, a smaller applicant pool or fear of losing students, more open slots in upper grades. When families come asking to be delivered from pain, many school leaders are tempted to spring into action both because they genuinely care and because of a desire to keep their customers happy, but also because other people’s problems are a great distracter. Listening to a suffering parent, educators may think, “Wow, this is interesting,” or, “Wow, my problems aren’t so bad,” or, “Wow, it sure would feel good to fix this little corner of the world.” But, of course, doing so won’t help the school with the issues that are pressing hardest on the schoolhouse door.

In our troubled times, schools can remain compassionate and vibrant communities, only if they resist pity, overindulgence, or overidentification with families — even those who are favored or aggressively miserable. This means having a clear view of responsibility, of who owns which problems. If you spread yourself out too much, you’ll get weary and dispirited, and you won’t be able to serve your core mission well. Besides, too much caring quite often backfires. This is the dark side of empathy.

It’s a paradox, but when you try to help those who can help themselves, at first, they kiss your hand, then they sue you. It’s like teenagers who get into the habit of punting their problems over to parents and then blame those same parents when they get a C-minus or a jail sentence. In independent schools, overly kind habits of the heart can lead to feelings of betrayal, an erosion of parental self-reliance, and a weakening of the community. Like the therapist who thinks he or she can fix a patient’s problems, the school that believes its mission includes providing a balm for every distress for every family will quickly find itself feeding its own distress.

It’s an admittedly tricky line to walk. Parents will ask and ask. But you should not feel obliged, say, to have a full on-campus memorial service under a tree on a cloudless day for anyone in the community who knows anyone who has died. Nor are you obligated to accommodate every single learning style of every child in the school just because you don’t test the children entering your early childhood program. Parents may be suffering at increasing rates in this down economy, but that doesn’t mean you must fill in the financial gaps for families living above their means until they get back on their feet.

Eking out resources in attempts to solve or soothe this category of parental discomfort inevitably creates frustration, disappointment, and layers new troubles onto old.

I’m not saying that schools shouldn’t accommodate families and parents in a compassionate, generous, and personalized fashion. My usual formula is this: Schools should cater to parents less than parents think is appropriate and more than teachers do. But with more families with urgent and broader needs in the school population — more than the usual five percenters — it’s easy to get swamped, confused about priorities, and to start sticking fingers in the dike or applying band-aid after band-aid, rather than stopping to reflect, to adjust your vision, make thoughtful choices, and then, where appropriate, tweak your systems.

What to Do Instead: Conduct Some Reality Therapy

When parents ask: Can’t you get my daughter to join a club? Play on a team? Have more friends? Talk my son into applying early decision to Penn? Tell my daughter that her mother and I are separating? Retool the math curriculum? Grade on a curve? Call my sister to offer your condolences over the death of her father-in-law? Stock up on red washcloths so if any of the kids in pre-K get a booboo, they won’t get scared by the blood? Listen to me dump my misery about how my bipolar, pill addicted, unemployed ex- husband is poisoning my relationship with my son? Base your financial-aid formula on income divided by debts and expenses instead of expenses divided by assets? Instead of saying, “I’ll see what I can do!” you can think about the power, potential, and majesty of reality. 

Marcus Hurlbut, head of Saint Margaret’s Episcopal School (California), described his school’s adjustment to the economic downturn as “a crisis we couldn’t afford to miss.” He explained that it served as a reality check and brought the school down to earth after an era of yearly add-ons and donations so sky-high that both the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times reported on the gifts as news items. “Now we’re giving financial aid to 60 kids from existing families who were formerly full-pay customers. In general, we’re more efficient because we have to be. We’re taking seriously the advice of several trustees who have long said, if we add a program, we need to consider sunsetting another. We’ve cut down on transportation costs, and are making better use of existing resources, all without any reduction in program or staff.” 

When I queried him about Smartboards — those pin-up girls of the prospective parents’ tour — he replied. “Exactly. This is a great piece of equipment but the kids used to ask: ‘Why are they here?’ Now we’ve figured out how best to use them.” 

Hurlbut notes other ways that basic shifts in perspective have both improved the efficiency of the school and led to a stronger community. “We don’t just assume people can just write the tuition check,” he says. “At back-to-school night, I let the parents know how much the faculty and staff appreciate the sacrifice parents are making to have their children here. Everyone is taking his or her obligations more seriously than ever.” 

This crisis-as-opportunity model can strengthen families as well. When schools resist applying palliatives, or making special allowances, or proceeding as though tough times are temporary, families have a better chance of making necessary adjustments. For example, some families applying for aid for the first time are reassessing priorities. Studying their monthly budget is illuminating. In many cases, what had been seen as essentials get redefined as luxuries. Living above their means in order to keep up with classmates or protect their children from reality no longer seems prudent. Non-working parents are getting jobs, grandparents are chipping in, families are cutting out skating lessons and extended or distant vacations. The children’s education is treated as a serious investment worthy of serious sacrifice. 

But other families are slower to face either their need for help or their need for self-discipline. For these families, a different brand of empathy is in order. Effective empathy is not secretive and scattershot, but systematic and transparent.

Set the stage. 

Say to the faculty: This year, we’re going to have families with illnesses of loved ones, changed financial circumstances, and marriages falling apart. When appropriate, direct the parents to any school resources of which they may be unaware, or refer them to your division head, a dean, or counselor — but always remember that your job is to be an empathic and respectful teacher of children, not a therapist or problem-solver for parents. 

Correct false assumptions.

At back-to-school night or grade-level meetings, relieve misplaced parental anxiety about the economy by reporting any reassuring trends that you’ve observed in your community or have learned about from colleagues.

Mothers who find themselves needing to go back to work are often convinced that any problem their child develops is due to their absence around the house. You can explain that this is rarely true. In some cases, it may even have a positive effect. Those working moms who tended towards excessive hovering find that going to work is both a helpful antidote to over-devotion and provides an opportunity for the children to develop more self-reliance and resourcefulness.

At college counseling meetings, you can warn parents not to encourage their child to apply to a school the parents don’t intend to allow the child to attend because of out-of-reach tuition or travel costs. “But he’ll feel good if he gets in” is a good-intentioned but misguided rationale. Besides, in some cases, it really means that the parents will feel good if their child gets in.

The amount of after-tax income needed to pay tuition for two children for 13 years adds up to enough money to cause any middle-class family to quake. You can remind parents that you are aware of the great cost of an independent school education, and that any family may find itself needing help at some point along the way. Then, in a discreet and encouraging snail-mail letter home — not in an announcement hidden deep in your website — invite existing families to apply for financial aid.


Be a role model of holding onto standards and expectations even in crisis.

Saying, “No excuses accepted in this class!” after a grandparent dies or a family faces other kinds of distress is a display of institutional heartlessness. But it is appropriate to say, “Yes, of course, we’ll give Jack a few days or a week grace period, but after that, homework is due on schedule.” Rather than acting as though students are fragile and easily traumatized, schools can acknowledge grief while also respectfully normalizing natural changes in life circumstances, even painful ones, as opportunities for developing resilience. 

Holding your ground on requests for accommodation to unnecessarily nervous demands (which are often displacements from personal worries) also helps to steady a community. School leaders can say, for instance, “Just because there’s been a school shooting in another state doesn’t mean our students are in any sort of danger. We are committed to maintaining an open campus in our own safe neighborhood, and have made a firm decision not to hire a security guard to stand at every access point of our school.”

Keep volunteers attuned to humble realities.

Most schools need a third to half more financial aid than they did a few years ago. This means that the parent association can be tasked with raising money for scholarships for existing families, rather than for the more delightful embellishments of years past like the Hawaii trip for the senior class or expensive equipment that the school can do without.

Remember that, in hard times, small acts of thoughtfulness put money in the bank of good will and morale.

Consider providing school supplies and pre-paying for tickets to the annual fund-raiser and sports banquet for families on full financial aid.

Make podcasts of parent education events so those who can’t attend for any reason or don’t wish to hire a babysitter will have access to the information provided to the attendees. 

Out of consideration to families weighing college scholarship or merit money over U.S. News rankings, consider taking down banners and posters of “prestige collection” schools in the college counselor’s office — or keep them up while also highlighting the colleges that offer the best aid packages.

Teach a man or woman to fish. 

School personnel may not have all the answers to adult problems, but schools can offer resources to help parents with their pressing issues. At the Center for Early Education (California), librarian Lucy Rafael has created 65 different bibliographies on a broad range of topics, including: adoption issues, cancer, children and trauma, death and dying, divorce, the vocabulary of emotions, fear, stress, working parents, stepfamilies, and resilience. This is a real “take home” because the Center’s parents can find every one of the titles in the school’s 5,000-book “parent library” collection. 

Be respectful if you need to part ways.

Many corporations offer highly developed outplacement services as part of the process of terminating an employee. Schools are not obligated to provide the full service of an outside school placement specialist, but in an era of more fluid traffic in and out of schools, remaining ignorant or naïve about alternatives is no longer a respectful or appropriate position. The support of an in-house resource person with knowledge of charter, magnet, and public options lends dignity and partnership to the transition.

Consider that giving more upfront may mean less knocking at the back door.

Over the past five years, Lakeside School (Washington) has developed a remarkably robust Family Support Program. The original mission was simple: the school wished to fulfill its commitment to diversity by both attracting and retaining families new to independent schools. It wanted prospective families to feel confident about choosing this potentially intimidating educational option and existing families to have the resources to succeed once they joined the community. Jamie Asaka, Family Support Program coordinator, explains that this perspective required a paradigm shift from family involvement to active family support. “We first evaluated the school culture and the systems currently in place in many different categories: transportation to and from practices and games and the cost of equipment for athletes, the need for interpreters at every school event, access to technology for families and students and support for families in any kind of crisis.” 

Using the example of technology, she described how, a few months into the school year, teachers discovered a puzzling pattern of missing student assignments. Some sleuthing revealed that, even though all students in grades seven to twelve were provided with laptops, once they arrived home, some were lacking a key but overlooked resource: Internet access. Out of embarrassment, these students never went to the teacher and said, “I can’t get online at home.” Instead, they scrambled to cover up this gap. They went to the library or hoped to find unlocked wifi in the neighborhood. Many just gave up and, with no explanation, simply didn’t hand in their work on time. 

“Now we survey all families at the beginning of the year and ask: Do you have Internet access? What kind? Is e-mail a good way to communicate with you? If they don’t have access to the web or e-mail, we help them get it. If they don’t want it for any reason, we send them hardcopies of all communications.” 

The Family Support Program has clearly strengthened the Lakeside community, Asaka says. “When all families are freely offered a whole set of specific resources for community participation, they feel encouraged and supported. Then they not only use the resources, but get involved and help others.”

Walking the mourner’s path together.

In the days of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the commonality of various experiences of loss was publicly acknowledged. A special separate path was set aside not only for those mourning the death of a close relative, but for those who faced other losses as well. In her wise and moving book, Mourning and Mitzvah, Rabbi Anne Brener writes, “It was understood that economic reverses, personal illness, relocation, and the illness of someone close required attention similar to that given to mourners. As it says in the Talmud: ‘Who are they who circle to the left? A mourner, an excommunicant, one who has someone sick at home, and one concerned about a lost object.’” As the example of Lakeside School so vividly illustrates, at one time or another, all parents lose something precious to them and rightfully take their place on the mourner’s path. 

A message board on a private page of your school’s website can serve as a vehicle for the exchange of goods and services. A school’s “mitzvah” or loving hands committee — where volunteers bring meals, drive carpools, and plan birthday parties for families in crisis — is a sparkling example of social capital embedded in the core of the community rather than parked in the office of the head of school. 

A national financial downturn with no predictable endpoint brings its own special grief and fear. When schools focus their energies on being the best educators possible rather than being all things to all people, families have an opportunity to mature and to learn to take care of themselves and each other. Finding opportunity in this crisis both strengthens the community and grows healthy social capital in a time when it’s so desperately needed. 

Wendy Mogel

Wendy Mogel is a practicing clinical psychologist, a New York Times best-selling author, and an international public speaker. In more than 500 talks, she’s addressed diverse audiences including non-English-speaking businesswomen in Beijing, youth leaders at a Buddhist institute in Sydney, Baptist clergy, talent agents, and the graduating class of 2014 at the interfaith Baccalaureate Ceremony of the Claremont Colleges. Currently she serves on the scientific advisory board of Parents Magazine and is a research and policy advisor for Challenge Success — a child advocacy program of the Stanford University School of Education.