Baby Peter teaches empathy

An interview with Rebecca LaRocca

Rebecca LaRocca’s infant son, Peter, became a teacher when he was two months old. He’s never had a formal education, but he is teaching children about empathy as he and his mom participate in the Roots of Empathy program at a school in their community. LaRocca, 33, and her husband live in Grimsby, Ont., along with their three young children. They belong to St. Joseph Parish. Christian Courier interviewed LaRocca to find out more about the Roots of Empathy program and the reason she decided to become involved in it.

Christian Courier: Tell us about the Roots of Empathy program. What are its vision and mission?
Rebecca LaRocca: The Roots of Empathy program began in 1996 and, to date, has reached almost 480,000 students in Canada in every province. The program is based on the belief that the attachment relationship between a baby and a parent is an ideal model of empathy. Children who participate in the program observe the loving relationship between a parent and a baby and see how the parent responds to the baby’s emotions and meets the baby’s needs. Roots of Empathy recognizes that the children of today are the parents and citizens of tomorrow, and by engaging in this loving relationship aims to prepare students for responsible citizenship and responsive parenting.

Roots of Empathy is an evidence-based program that has shown significant effect in reducing levels of aggression among schoolchildren by raising emotional competence and increasing empathy. It results in more respectful and caring relationships and reduced levels of bullying and aggression. The vision of the program strives to break the intergenerational cycle of violence and poor parenting (rootsofempathy.org/en/mission-goals-and-values).

What motivated you to become involved in Roots of Empathy?
Being part of St. Catharines Right to Life and having a passion for the unborn motivated me to participate in the program. When I was approached to become involved in Roots of Empathy, amongst the program’s multiple objectives I immediately recognized the valuable pro-life messages and jumped at the opportunity to participate. 

One of the key pro-life messages intertwined throughout the program focuses on “setting a place at the table for everyone,” whether a person’s seat at the table is in a wheelchair, a rocking chair or a high chair. Inclusion means identifying our differences and valuing every human life regardless of differences in physical or neurological development.

I can’t paraphrase the pro-life messages any better than this paragraph on the Roots of Empathy website: “The public health messages they learn about protection, both inside and outside the womb, will form their actions in their childhood and adult life. They become advocates for babies bringing these messages to family and neighbours. The beauty of a child bringing a message of safety whether it be protecting a baby’s lungs from the damage of smoke or preventing the invasive damage of alcohol to an unborn baby, is in the innocence and forthrightness that is unique to childhood” (rootsofempathy.org/en/safety-messages).

It’s such a strong message that we should never underestimate the power of a child’s voice to bring an adult to responsible action. The children involved in the program become voices for their Roots of Empathy baby and generalize that advocacy to all babies, even the unborn.

How were you prepared for your role?
I was approached to implement the program by a child and youth worker employed by the school, who is a trained Roots of Empathy instructor. We met and the program’s vision, mission and curriculum were explained to me. I was given reading material and an informational video. We then started our classroom visits once a month with Peter for the duration of the school year. Prior to each visit, the child and youth worker informs me of the themes and curriculum for the visit.
What happens during a typical classroom visit with Peter?
The children follow a curriculum led by the child and youth worker. Prior to family visits there is classroom learning focused on a theme set out in the Roots of Empathy curriculum. After classroom learning, there’s a family visit in which Peter and I visit the classroom. When we enter the classroom, the children stand up and softly sing a greeting to him. I bring Peter in front of each child, making eye contact with each one to build a connection. Peter and I then sit at the front of the circle and, depending on the theme of the visit, the children ask questions they’ve been thinking about. For example, the last visit’s theme was about crying, so the children took turns guessing what makes Peter cry. We then talked about what I do to calm Peter down when he is crying and the feelings I may experience when he won’t stop crying. We talk about why we may never shake a baby.

Peter then has a chance to show off what he has learned to do since our last visit – for example, if he has a new tooth, new sounds, a new ability like sitting, and so on. We may sing him songs or play a game together. We measure and weigh Peter and see how he has grown. The children share their observations regarding how Peter has changed since the last visit, for example how he is now smiling or has grown more hair. The visit ends with a goodbye song and Peter is brought around again to each child. After we leave, the child and youth worker leads the students in post-visit classroom learning.
How have the students responded to Peter?  
The children are so excited to see Peter and more so with each subsequent visit. One day I was at the school with Peter to pick up my four-year-old daughter. We weren’t visiting the classroom that day. I’d only attended one visit with Peter prior to that day, but children on the playground recognized him and started shouting, “Baby Peter is here!” They all gathered around. It was really touching.

Peter always seems to choose one child during the greeting and hold his gaze on that child, smiling and laughing until the child does the same. The child can’t help but giggle in return. You can tell that child really feels special when this occurs. The children are amazed every time Peter shows them how he has changed since the last visit. They clap softly when he does something new. The children aren’t allowed to hold Peter, but they’re so excited when they’re allowed to touch his feet or hands.

Have you noticed any changes in the students’ ability to be empathetic?
Yes, this was demonstrated at our last visit when Peter had just fed prior to the visit and, in front of everyone, had a large spit up. The children laughed and some said, “Disgusting!” The child and youth worker said gently, “Remember, we want Peter to feel welcome and comfortable here.” From that visit on, the children didn’t use that term again when Peter spit up subsequent times, except for one time. Then another child said, “Hey, don’t say that!”

The children look empathetic when Peter cries. When asked how they think I feel when baby Peter cries, they said, “Sad.” The children also share observations that demonstrate caring, like when Peter was lying on his tummy and put his head down, the children very quickly shared with me that they thought he was tired of his tummy and wanted to be picked up. Or when Peter makes a sad face, they quickly inform me of this and are happy when Peter is happy.  
Has your work with Roots of Empathy changed you?
I can’t tell you how much fun Peter and I have during the classroom visits! It’s a time full of discovery, giggles and learning. It reinforces that participating in volunteer work doesn’t only bring joy to the people you’re reaching out to, but to yourself, as well! Hearing the diverse thoughts and observations of these precious children reminds me of how unique and wonderful each child is.  

Children touch a baby's feet while participating in the Roots of Empathy program.

Rebecca LaRocca is a nurse in the intensive care unit at McMaster University Medical Center, Hamilton, Ont., and she teaches clinical nursing at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.            

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