It has been said that the difference between being human and animal is the ability to show empathy. It is the foundation for good ethical behavior, showing emotion, achieving success in life and fostering good, healthy relationships.
To define it simplistically, empathy is the capacity to walk in another person’s shoes and to value that perspective. In other words, empathy is not just viewing things from the perspective of others, but also showing compassion for that person’s plight.
Is it possible to teach your child empathy? Yes you can. That may sound counter-intuitive especially since empathy is considered an innate trait that you either have or do not have. It is more than that, not just a single trait that manifests in every situation but is actually a three part process:
- To feel the emotions of another person (if I am anxious and afraid then you are anxious and afraid)
- To recognize and understand another person’s perspective (to imagine someone else’s thoughts and emotions)
- Feeling sympathy and willing to assist someone in need
Teaching empathy is not just about being a positive role model to your kids. It is not just about assigning activities that teach kids empathy but it also encompasses identifying the skills children need to share emotions, to understand what others are thinking and to offer assistance. These skills can be taught to your child.
Provide the Tools and Support to Manage Their Emotions
Parents can practice a sensitive, responsive parenting style that make their children feel safe. This approach makes kids feel less suspicious of other people and therefore more relaxed. If they feel that they can count on us for emotional and physical support then they feel more secure. A secure child is more likely to take emotional risks and help somebody that needs it.
Teach your kids to manage negative feelings. Acknowledge your child’s negative feelings and have a discussion with them about their emotions and the cause of their feelings. By talking about their negative emotions they are finding a constructive outlet to manage their feelings. Children who are able to manage their own emotions show more empathy to others.
How We Empathize With Others
Children will learn from us empathizing with them and others. When we empathize with our children we develop trusting and secure connections with them. These connections will encourage them to mirror our behavior in their interactions with other people.
Empathizing with our kids could take the form of identifying their emotional and physical needs, taking an interest in their lives and activities, respecting their personalities and embracing their uniqueness.
Children will also observe and learn from the way we acknowledge and treat people we encounter, like the waiter at the restaurant, the guy panhandling on the street, welcoming new neighbors to the neighborhood etc.
Stress The Importance Of Caring For Others
We should prioritize raising our kids to care for others just as much as caring for their own happiness. Parents should constantly reinforce the need for compassion and the need to appreciate the perspective of others. Speak to your child’s teachers to find out if they are caring and compassionate to their classmates.
Help your child understand that everything in life is not about them or what they want. Teach them to put the needs of others before their own, for example you can ask them to cut play-time short and help around the house and to always be respectful to others in spite of their own mood.
Talk Openly About Racial Biases And Injustice
Many parents take the approach of avoiding the discussion of race and not acknowledging the fact that we are made up of a society comprising many race groups. The hope is that this approach will prevent kids from developing racial biases. However, kids absorb and develop racial biases from pop culture. Research suggest that kids become less biased when parents acknowledge and address the existence of bias and racism.
People tend to feel less empathy for individuals they perceive to be different from themselves. We need to help our kids by not focusing on what makes us different but rather the underlying similarities we all share. To eradicate these toxic biases we need to openly talk to our kids.
Expand Our Children’s Awareness
We often assess our children by trying to gauge how much or how little empathy they have. However, the issue should not be the quantity of a child’s empathy but rather who they have empathy for. Most of us have empathy for people within our immediate circle, like family and friends. But the core issue is whether we have empathy for people outside that close-knit circle. As parents, it is important that we encourage caring and understanding of many types of people who may be facing challenges that are different from the challenges that our kids may be accustomed to.
Encourage your child to listen to others and consider the feelings of those that may be facing challenges, like a child who may be bullied or teased at school. Urge him to act by perhaps comforting or being a friend to the child.
Practice Empathy With Your Child
Seize on any opportunity to encourage your child to practice empathy. You can do this by asking your child to consider how other people are feeling. Use pretend play and talk about feelings and empathy as you play.
Use the news or television stories to talk about the problems people are facing. Talk about the challenges kids from other cultures or backgrounds are experiencing.
Be Active in Your Child’s Development
Children learn about other peoples feelings from their parents, teachers and caregivers. They learn from the emotions that are shared with them.
The more kids practice empathy the more compassionate they become. You as the parent can role-play or discuss topics in the newspapers or television as practice exercises. As they grow they develop the ability to understand others’ perspectives and respond with compassion.
Empathy is connected to the development of other human abilities like, sociability, resilience, self-awareness and integrity. When empathy is developed kids become better and well-rounded human beings that can improve the lives of those around them. It is therefore incumbent on parents, caregivers and teachers to be aware of how their interactions with children and others impacts on the child’s development