Empathy. When a child has empathy from an early age, they are setting themselves up for a happier, more fulfilling life. When our kids learn to open their hearts to family, friends, and to strangers, their entire sense of well-being increases with each interaction. Cruelty and unkindness happens. And it is going to keep happening. But we want our own children to be advocates for the child receiving the brunt of hurtful actions and words. How many times can we look back in our own lives and think, “Why did I just watch or walk away? I should have done something to help that person”. Just think how harmonious the hallways of our schools would be if all of our children were empathetic. The more empathetic we become, the more human we become and the more human others become. Hearts expand and the ability to understand what another person is going through grows. As the new school year begins and my own kids walk the hallways and ride the bus, I pray they and their schoolmates practice empathy. Perhaps I am too empathetic thinking about my middle-schooler navigating his way, but I worry. I worry that he will encounter kids who just don’t care. Because in middle school, it is not always “cool” to care about someone else feelings.
What is empathy?
Empathy is often described as “standing in someone else’s shoes”. To quote Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird: ‘You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.’
Empathy is ability to understand another person’s perspective- their feelings, experiences, hopes, and struggles. Empathy is often confused with sympathy. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone, while empathy is the effort of trying to consider what that other person is experiencing: to try and see the world through their eyes. Empathy also gives us the ability to control our own emotions, as well as help us to not assign our own emotions to others.
We are all wired for empathy (maybe to different degrees), but like anything else if it is not practiced, it doesn’t come as easily. Empathy is what truly makes a difference in our interactions with others.
What does it look like?
Sometimes our kids (ourselves includes) practice empathy without realizing we are doing just that. Empathy is the act of truly listening to what another has to say (being present). And during the conversation, we open up emotionally to make a deeper connection. Empathy is the ability to understand nonverbal communication. I see empathy all the time when my daughter hugs one of her friends who feels down. And what I see on my daughter’s face is peace and love. She gets that in return and learns that it feels good to be empathetic. If only it were cool for boys to offer the same gestures. But they can learn to hug with their words and listen. Another way I often witness my kids practicing empathy is taking the feelings of others into consideration. My son will ask a stressed teacher if there is anything he can do to help. He will also ask me if he can help in any way when he sees I am stressed or hurried. Empathy also appears in those offers to help others.
Why should empathy be discussed routinely?
If we teach empathy to our kids, they will better understand the people around them. They become more confident individuals while communicating, observing, and listening. Empathy helps keep those negative feeling at bay that are sometimes the result of a misunderstood interaction. Kids will also think about how their actions affect others around them. Conflict at school can also be avoided. Empathetic kids will grow up to be empathetic adults, who are more well adjusted. Additionally, teaching empathy to our kids reminds us to be more empathetic ourselves. We all find ourselves in that judgmental moment where the practice of empathy could have avoided any negative thoughts. Empathy allows us to treat one another as we wish to be treated. It also teaches us to be kind to all living animals.
How can I teach my child empathy?
There is a great resource at www.parentingscience.com by Gwen Dewar Ph.D. that reviews evidence-based tips for fostering empathy in children. Dr. Dewar offers expanded details about the following tips in teaching empathy:
1. Address your child’s own needs and teach him how to bounce back from distress
2. Be a mind-minded parent (treating your child as an individual with a mind of her own)
3. Seize everyday opportunities to model sympathetic feeling for other people
4. Help kids discover what they have in common with other people
5. Teach kids about the hot-cold empathy gap (mistakes in judgment and failures of empathy). I like that statement here about self control isn’t just about being strong, it’s about being smart. This will be important in getting through the school years.
6. Help kids explore other roles and perspectives
And now I empathize with you as your kids go back to school. I feel the worries you have about your daughter entering middle school, I get how annoying the early morning alarm clock will sound, I won’t judge if you race past me at the supermarket and don’t say hello: you have a child waiting at the bus stop. And please don’t judge me if you found this article boring or not crafted the way you would have written it. I perhaps felt the need to write this to spread empathetic energy into our schools to protect our babies. May our kids be the light in one another’s hearts this school year.