How do we teach our children empathy? Let's start by defining it.
: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner also : the capacity for this
: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
In the early years of life, young children are naturally ego-centric and are very much inclined to think mostly about themselves and their immediate needs. They’re not yet ready to consider the needs and feelings of others.
But developing a sense of empathy is an important developmental process for young children, and one that can benefit them not only in childhood but well into adult life as well.
So why is developing empathy important for children?
Building an understanding of what others are feeling, how their own actions can impact on others, and why someone might be experiencing feelings at a particular time is a valuable life skill for children to possess.
Helping young children to develop a strong sense of empathy is beneficial because:
It helps them to build a sense of security and stronger relationships with other children and educators, positioning them well for learning
It encourages tolerance and acceptance of others
It promotes good mental health
It promotes social harmony and can reduce the likelihood of bullying
Bullying is a significant issue in our world today. Teaching empathy will reduce the change of bullying and will increase the chance of doing the right thing when we witness someone else being bullied. What I know with 100% certainty: Sitting back and doing nothing DOES nothing! It we want change, we ALL have to be part of the change.
As parents, we need to say something and we need to work on teaching and showing our kids kindness and empathy.
So how can we help children develop empathy?
One way is by showing it ourselves. Be the role model. Parents are children’s first and most enduring teachers, and modelling empathetic behaviour is one of the best ways parents can teach their child this valuable skill.
Work on helping your children develop self-control and manage feelings effectively.
"And when they do make mistakes, because they will, help them understand consequences and help them practice self-reflection and growth so they are less likely to make the same mistake again."
Our youth are struggling, and yes bullying is a HUGE problem everywhere. We need to ALL work on this problem. At home, in the schools.... and even at work. Bullying is never okay and should never be tolerated.
Other simple ways empathy can be developed include:
Helping your child to name their feelings, as understanding their own feelings is an important first step in understanding the feelings of others
Talking to your child about how other people may be feeling, and why. This helps to build their emotional language and think about other people’s perspectives.
Caring for animals and plants, which helps children understand the role they play in helping another living thing survive, thrive and be happy.
Perhaps one of the simplest ways of all to help children develop a sense of empathy is by reading books together, as children learn to associate feelings and actions with their favourite characters and stories.
Children learn empathy both from watching us and from experiencing our empathy for them. When we empathize with our children they develop trusting, secure attachments with us. Those attachments are key to their wanting to adopt our values and to model our behavior, and therefore to building their empathy for others.
Empathizing with our children takes many forms, including tuning in to their physical and emotional needs, understanding and respecting their individual personalities, taking a genuine interest in their lives, and guiding them toward activities that reflect an understanding of the kind of people they are and the things they enjoy.
Children also learn empathy by watching those we notice and appreciate. They’ll notice if we treat a server in a restaurant or a mail carrier as if they’re invisible. On the positive side, they’ll notice if we welcome a new family in our child’s school or express concern about another child in our child’s class who is experiencing one challenge or another.
Finally, it’s important for us to recognize what might be getting in the way of our empathizing. Are we, for example, exhausted or stressed? Does our child push our buttons in a specific way that makes caring for her or him hard at times?
Try these tips:
Know your child. Ask your child questions. For example, what did you learn today that was interesting? What was the hardest part of your day? How would you most like to spend a day if you could do anything? Do you have a friend that you especially respect? Why do your respect that person?
Demonstrate empathy for others, including those different from you. Consider regularly engaging in community service or model other ways of contributing to a community. Even better, consider doing this with your child. Express interest in those from various backgrounds facing many different types of challenges.
Engage in self-care and self-reflection. Try to find time to regularly engage in an activity—whether it’s going for a walk, reading a book, meditating or praying—that can help you avoid being overwhelmed by stress. Reflect and consult with people you trust when you’re having a hard time empathizing with your child.