em·pa·thy ˈɛm pə θi – [em-puh-thee] –noun
|1.||the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.|
A three year old boy declares from his car seat in the back seat of their SUV, “Mom, we have to be very careful of that motorcycle, right? If we hit him he’ll bet hurt, right mom, and that would hurt.”
In contrast, another small child of five, laughs, as her team mate trips over the ball and limps off the field crying into the arms of mommy. The laughing child then gets angry that the game must be stopped to tend to the hurt child, “but I want to play now!”
What makes these two children so different in their abilities to be empathetic? Why does the child of five show less empathy than the three year old?
- It is crucial to a child’s moral development to be taught empathy by parents.
- Empathy must be taught to children; it is not developed without training.
- Empathy training must start at infancy.
It is pretty clear from the reactions of the children in the two different situations that one child has had ongoing empathy training from birth, while the other child has not had the same training. Lack of training about empathy can lead to callous, self-centered and narcissistic adults.
It is well known that children learn from example. Therefore, demonstrating empathy is a crucial way to teach children to be empathetic. There are many different ways of modeling empathy.
Parent with compassion.
Patience, kindness and thoughtful interaction with children contribute to raising kind, empathetic, and compassionate people. Taking the time to listen and really focusing on what a child is saying is the start of teaching empathy.
Kneel when giving directions, listen closely to what the child is saying and repeat their words, and read their emotions: These are all ways to show children what it is like to have someone try to experience what they are feeling. Parents should not forget to model compassion outside of the home too. Treating people with dignity and respect teaches children to treat people with dignity and respect.
Help children experience empathy firsthand.
Bring children to a local animal shelter, donate used items to a homeless shelter, and visit assisted living facilities. These and other acts of kindness put children in close proximity to those in need.
Expose children to great humanitarians.
A trip to the library to research famous humanitarians can be a wonderful experience for parents eager to instill empathy in their children. Learning about great givers like Ghandi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and modern day Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aun San Suu Kyi, will expand the child’s world view, and teach them about people who have dedicated their lives to the betterment of others.
Label emotions so that children understand the normal feelings they are experiencing.
Children have the same feelings that adults do, including anxiety, sadness, frustration and anger. Parents can help them to identify their emotions by paying close attention and asking them what they are feeling. Helping a child get in touch with his feelings is an empathetic gesture and bonds parent and child. Parents can explain that everyone experiences feelings. For instance, the little girl sitting alone at lunch feels lonely. Similarly, the boy who had his name put on the blackboard for bad behavior probably felt ashamed and embarrassed.
Identify situations where empathy is appropriate.
The homeless, injured animals, crying children and sad family members are situations to which children come face to face. Being sensitive to age and maturity so as not to frighten children, parents can point out and discuss sad situations with children. Simple questions like, “How would you feel if…”, train children to put themselves in another’s shoes.
The goal in teaching empathy to children is to raise kind, caring adults. Living in a world that places enormous emphasis on fame, immediate gratification, and acquisition can retard children’s social development by placing all of the emphasis on “me”. Without the ability to shift focus away from “me” and onto others, people can not establish deep and lasting relationships as adults.
Parents should not underestimate their role in instilling empathy in their children. Empathy training happens at home from infancy. By teaching children how to feel what others may be feeling, parents will raise loving and kind people.