Vivienne Harr was 8 years old when her parents brought home a book featuring photographs of modern day slaves. She looked at the pictures of the bodies, bent and weathered, eyes gazing out at her from realities far from her sun-dappled yard in Fairfax, California. In one picture, two boys her age carried flat stone slabs as large as their bodies strapped to their heads. According to her father, Vivienne’s response was childlike. They shouldn’t be working like this; they should be playing. We have to do something.

It was a momentary expression of feeling by a naïve little girl, and yet it became the pivotal event that changed the trajectory of her family’s life forever.

An uncommon response

When Vivienne expressed her feelings, she was like millions of other kids who have looked into their parents’ eyes beseechingly, urging them to “do something.” Whether it’s rescuing a trapped butterfly or wondering where exactly a homeless person sleeps, kids often can see through to the heart of small and large issues only treatable by large doses of empathy. Sometimes “socializing” a child means tempering those feelings with more pragmatic concerns: yes, wiping up the ants on the kitchen counter kills them, but it’s still part of your chore. Sometimes a kid’s empathy even triggers parent concerns. Every year, my fiercely empathetic daughter announces she wants to try to win a school race only to stick by her best friend who ends up walking across the finish line at back of the pack. I love my daughter’s empathy for her friend, but I wonder how her impulse to accommodate others’ feelings will influence her willingness to go for her own dreams.

But the story of Vivienne Harr is not about a child being coaxed toward some version of that “adult balance” of self-interest, common decency, and unexpressed ideals we consider normal. Vivienne’s story is about that balance being flipped on its head. What if parents listened to their child’s empathy to such an extent that it reordered their entire lives?

The age of empathy

We live in a time that’s been dubbed the “age of empathy,” but the word hasn’t always meant what it means now. Originally coined by a 19th century German philosopher, empathy referred to “feeling into” works of art in order to understand the artist’s perspective. Freud and early psychologists began using the term to describe the human ability to imagine another’s experience, but it remained hotly debated for another 100 years.

Some experts defined empathy as cognitive — the process by which you think about someone else’s perspective; others thought it was emotional/instinctive — the flush of fear you feel when watching a tightrope walker step out on a line 50-feet above a cement plaza. There wasn’t even consensus that empathy was a virtue.

“Empathy can be used for kindness or hostility,” wrote American psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut. And even among those psychologists who agree empathy is a necessary ingredient for altruism (doing good things for others), they haven’t always agreed on where empathy comes from. Is it a biological trait like curly hair? Is it a normal function of all human brains — except those of sociopaths? Or is it like reading: another teachable skill?

Exhausted yet? I feel your pain. My two daughters — one of whom occasionally suffers from a lack of empathy, the other from an overabundance — are a constant source of confusion for me. How can I instill empathy in the warrior princess? Should I toughen the softie up a little? All these expert debates remind us that when we look into our child’s face and contemplate the very best way to cultivate that right balance of empathy, self-preservation, and confidence, there’s no easy formula. Experts have been battling the meanings and merits of feeling others’ feelings for more than a century. But in the past 10 years, empathy has been gathering traction as the presiding ideal of our time.

With liberty and empathy for all?

Like the exalted value of temperance during the temperance movement, the empathy debates have reached the highest offices and are even influencing our laws. In 2008, Barack Obama was elected to the most powerful job in the world’s most powerful country after declaring that the United States had an “empathy deficit.” Once in office, he pledged to choose Supreme Court judges based on their empathy. In response to such comments, the Senate held extensive debates (tabulated here with obsessive detail) on empathy as it relates to the justice system. Much of the debate divided along partisan lines, with Republicans focusing on situations where empathy could cloud the rule of law and Democrats stressing the value of fellow feeling in making fair decisions. But now, empathy seems to have won the day on both sides of the aisle. The term is now being applied to conservative Justice Clarence Thomas. Empathy has even entered our judicial application process: all nominees for District and Circuit Court must now answer questions about the role that empathy plays in their worldview and court decisions.

The empathy trend is also changing our schools. Many bullying programs eschew simple rules about behavior and emphasize empathy skills (not just for the victim but for the perpetrator as well). Many schools with high suspension rates of minority youth are adopting a new non-punitive disciplinary practice called restorative justice. Based on the idea that empathic communication can heal, it requires that the perpetrators of crime/misconduct talk with those affected and make restitution. Empathy has even inspired a well-funded social movement: Ashoka, a nonprofit that recognizes social entrepreneurs around the globe, recently launched “Start Empathy,” an initiative that seeks to establish empathy as a cultural skill every bit as valued — and taught — as literacy.

Unleashing magic

When Eric and Alex Harr showed their daughter the photo book of slaves, their lives resembled that of many upper middle class American families. Eric was working furiously to build a small social media company he cofounded; Alex stayed at home, acting as family CEO managing a family schedule replete with activities, vacations, and accumulation. “We got excited,” explains Alex of those early years when they could first afford luxuries they hadn’t grown up with, “about the fancy car, the month in Hawaii.”

Their parenting, on the other hand, had always beaten a less-charted path. When her little brother was born, Vivienne headed off to first grade distraught. “She said, ‘I prayed for a brother, but I now never get to take care of him,’” recalls her mother. Since she was home with a baby anyway, Alex pulled her daughter out of school and agreed to homeschool Vivienne for a couple of years, before enrolling her in a local private school for third grade.

But when Vivienne saw the image of two enslaved boys and pledged to raise $100,000 to free slaves, her parents crossed another threshold of parental norms. Being a regular 8-year-old girl, Vivienne decided a lemonade stand would do the trick. After several hours of squeezing organic lemons and selling juice for $2 dollars a glass to grandparents on speed dial and sympathetic neighbors from their roadside stand, they had amassed about $80, a fortune for an elementary schooler, but nowhere near the amount they would need to make if they were going to reach their goal before Vivienne started college.

Going for it

At this point, many parents would steer their children toward more attainable goals, tempering empathy with a talk about profit margins. Instead, Alex and Eric threw themselves into helping their daughter attain her goal. “Our family motto has always been, ‘why not?’” says Eric. Alex worried it was “just crazy,” but in the end, she and Eric committed to helping Vivienne run a lemonade stand every day for a year. Eric channeled his social media expertise into promoting his daughter’s project: he tweeted a photo of the stand each day and began to document their journey. Instead of selling the lemonade, Vivienne suggested giving it away for free and “asking people to give what was in their heart.” (Or as one admiring social media executive told me, “That’s her innovation: heart-based pricing.”)

It’s launched a roller coaster ride that has turned the family upside down. What started out as a kid’s lemonade stand grew into something else. Vivienne became a media darling, maintaining a punishing schedule of TV appearances and interviews, sometimes appearing with Lisa Christine, the documentary photographer whose photos first inspired her. On day 173 of the lemonade stand, Vivienne reached her goal, passing out juice in frigid weather in New York’s Times Square. She’d raised $101,320.

“We’re done!” her parents announced, ready to celebrate. “’Is child slavery done?’” Eric recalls Vivienne asking. No, her father said and explained. “Then she said, ‘Then I’m not done.’ ”

A year later, Vivienne rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange for Twitter’s IPO. That was the day Eric realized he, too, needed to commit: “My partner said, ‘Eric, you’re not really here. You need to do this.’” So Vivienne’s dad left the company he founded to devote himself full-time to his daughter’s #makeastand cause. The choice wasn’t easy, says Eric. “It was literally like — job with a regular paycheck that supports the family or 9-year-old. What am I going to do?” Soon after, the family founded a lemonade company, Make a Stand, with a very public face: a little girl who gives talks introducing CEOs and sits on panels with the Dalai Lama.

As their daughter stepped into an ever-brightening spotlight, Eric and Alex found themselves questioning their choices all along the way. Somehow their daughter’s empathic impulse toward some children on the other side of the world had changed everything. Eric invested their savings in a beverage company, which he says turns out to be about a lot of things he never imagined, including distribution operations run by cigar-smoking Tony Sopranos in a cutthroat fight for shelf space. “I didn’t fit into this world. I’m a hugger,” explains Eric. “I know less about beverages than anyone.” As they were running though their savings, he often found himself declaring that he was “done,” only to have Vivienne suggest they keep going.

Now 11, Vivienne seems like a regular little girl, jumping up to beg her father for a popsicle when she hears the siren call of the ice cream truck. Yet she’s persisted with the project. Even when she grew weary of the routine and faced days when no one donated money, Vivienne dragged her lemonade stand out onto the street. Eric acknowledges it’s tricky to have a boss who is a 9-year-old. “When she says I can’t do my math homework because I need to work on my speech for Google, it’s hard because she’s being asked to do so much, but we have to say that homework is nonnegotiable.” When asked, she says she’d rather work on “her company” over homework any day.

But her parents have had to make more difficult choices. They risked their family’s security. “We had to ask, can we stay in our home?” explains Alex, sitting on their sunny deck. “We had to cut all the extras,” she says, by which she means private schooling, vacations, the second car, a nanny, housekeeping, and “buying stuff”. Instead, Vivienne and her brother, Turner, learned to scrub their bathroom toilets, and Alex finds herself explaining their new lifestyle: “People would ask me from our old [private] school, when are you coming back?”

They also had concerns about their daughter’s safety. “For a while we were doing three to four interviews a day,” recalls Eric. “Vivienne probably did 1,000 interviews. There was so much pressure.” Vivienne loves the limelight, but there are limits. Eric recalls one day when she freaked out and didn’t want to appear on a TV show. The family pulled back from their breakneck pace, reenrolled their daughter in the local public school, and learned to say no, as when a TV company asked Vivienne to host a celebrity-based reality TV show.

Though the Harrs are in the driver’s seat, their roller coaster ride continues. The product line is growing. Four new flavors, Original, Ginger, Orange Mango, Cranberry, will arrive in stores later this summer. And their most recent project, an app called STAND that enables anyone to launch a crowd-funding campaign in just a few minutes, goes live July 31. As their Chief Inspiration Officer, Vivienne just became the youngest person ever invited to make a commitment to the Clinton Global Initiative, where she’ll commit to getting a million STANDS.

Eric says this ride has reordered their life according to what they really believe in – and that it’s immensely satisfying. “We were having so much fun. We became greedy for compassion,” he told me, articulating a well-researched altruism effect in which the altruist feels happier and more engaged in life.

Survival of the kindest

For a century, evolutionary biologists assumed that a human’s essential nature was selfish. Against that backdrop, Eric’s phrase “greedy for compassion” sounds like an oxymoron. But there’s a host of new research that suggests compassion is not only integral to the human brain but a practice that can lead to greater happiness and increased physical and emotional well-being. It’s also supposed to make us more helpful: something called the “empathy-altruism hypothesis.” Researchers who work at academic institutes such as Stanford School of Medicine’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and the Greater Good Science Center at University of California, Berkeley are building databases to track compassion and funding studies on things like the effects of “compassion meditation” on well-being and how perspective-taking influences relationships.

Neuroscientists have also found that mirror neurons — the part of our brain that feels pain — are also the hub of empathic feelings. Social psychologist Daniel Batson argues that empathy is essential for altruism because otherwise we help others “only if the rewards of helping them outweigh the costs.” Dacher Keltner, psychologist at University of California, Berkeley and author of the “Compassion Instinct,” has identified a single gene involved in empathic feeling. Some experts have even suggested we banish the notion of evil in favor of an idea of “empathy starvation.” Some experts have upheld empathy as the cure for humanity’s global and environmental problems.

Giving isn’t always easy

What does this mean for your parenting? Most experts believe you can influence – though not entirely control – your child’s empathy. (Check out some tips for cultivating an empathic child.) But there’s still a debate on how much you want to foster empathy as the guiding force in your child’s decisions. As Paul Bloom argued in the New Yorker, empathy may make us want to help a starving child in a developing country, but research suggests that the feeling part of our brain does not distinguish between helping a single child and 9 million of them. In fact, our empathic desire to connect with individuals made research subjects choose to help the single child over the group. This, argues Bloom, can lead a highly empathic person away from the action that helps the most people toward the one that feels the best —helping a single person.

Sitting in their yard, surrounded by walls painted with blackboard paint and scrawled with Vivienne and her pal’s drawings, it looks like a doting parent’s dream come true. One little girl’s moment of inspiration spawns a company that feeds the family and frees distant slaves! (No wonder reality TV came calling.) What remains less visible is the light cast by Eric and Alex’s “Why not?” mantra that enables this unusual social venture.

But it’s there. Not just the blackboard paint or even the playful way Eric wrests his young son away from the interviewer, but what he expects of his daughter when she’s faced with an ethical decision. My daughter has been a fan of Vivienne’s ever since she heard about her lemonade stand back in 2012, and so I dragged her along to the interview. Eric quizzed my daughter about her interests and she ended up explaining a school project involving reselling dolls to fund girls’ educations in Uganda.

Eric’s face glowed with an idea. “You probably have an American Girl doll to spare, right, Viv?”

Later, in her room, Vivienne held her doll with long black hair and looked into her glassy eyes. Then, with a mixture of sadness and resolution, she carried her doll gingerly and placed it in my daughter’s hands.

Her mother looked on sympathetically: “Sometimes it’s hard to give, but that’s when it means a lot.”

Vivienne’s working hard to help others, but it isn’t always easy. Watch as Vivienne explains how she stays positive. Vivienne Harr: teaching empathy by example

Want to boost the empathy levels in your home? Read 7 do’s (and don’ts) to help your family build empathy skills

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