Teaching Your Children Empathy
By Maarya Sheikh.
How many of us actively teach our kids empathy, or practice it ourselves?
This question came to my mind when the world watched in horror, as police officer Derek Chauvin posed for the camera with his knee on George Floyd’s neck. I couldn’t comprehend how a man’s heart remained unmoved as another human being under him begged for his life, calling out to his mother with his final breath. I struggled to understand how people defended Chauvin’s actions even after the video surfaced. How did we, as a culture, become comfortably numb to other people’s pain?
Most of us begin experiencing emotional empathy as toddlers, as we grow out of what psychologists call our “narcissistic” infant phase and begin considering the feelings of others. However, empathy must be encouraged to grow past this basic level. For a child to grow into a truly empathetic adult — one who considers different perspectives and behaves compassionately— they must be taught a variety of emotional skills.
Here are some impactful ways we can teach our children the different forms of empathy.
Encourage them to read fiction
Studies suggest that children who read fiction, especially about characters with different experiences than their own, are more emotionally intelligent than children who do not. Fiction is a safe playground for a child’s mind to step into the shoes of another person, and this exercises their capacity for cognitive empathy. If you want to teach your child to value others’ differences, storybooks with diverse characters might be more effective than a lecture. Select books written by and about people of different ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, religions and class backgrounds.
Help them name emotions
Go beyond asking whether they feel “good” or “bad”. Give your kids the full vocabulary of feelings so they can learn to identify emotions, in themselves and others. Talk about your own feelings with them too, by saying “I am feeling tired” or “Mummy feels irritable.” Explain the meaning of each word by using examples e.g. “Disappointment is how you felt when we said we might go to the movies, but couldn’t.”
Don’t shame “difficult” feelings
Telling your son boys don’t cry, or your daughter that girls don’t get angry teaches them to feel ashamed. If they exhibit weakness or act out, think of how to intervene without invalidating their emotions. Suggest healthy outlets for sadness, anger, loss, and disappointment: exercising or making art, for example. Receiving sympathy from a trusted person in their most vulnerable moments teaches them to react the same way to others.
Teach responsibility for nature
If your children are a little older, encourage them to take care of a plant or small pet, like a fish. Not only is it soothing, it teaches kids the ability to care for another living thing and pay attention to its needs. It instills in them responsibility, the value of life, and the importance of connecting to nature.
Try peaceful conflict resolution
Your child will get involved in kerfuffles with friends or siblings. Rather than saying “I don’t care who started it,” sit both parties down and let them take turns explaining why they acted the way they did. Emphasize that insults and violence are not solutions, and how they can both try to see each other’s perspective. If one person was clearly in the wrong, ask how they can make amends. If they have a conflict of interest, have them think of ways to compromise.
Practice what you preach
Children are taught to respect elders, but rarely is it the other way around. Most exhausted parents want compliance, but can fall into the trap of “do as I say, not as I do” to get it. You’re the authority, but children need to feel heard as well. If you’re teaching them respect for others’ opinions, ask about theirs. If you’re teaching them violence is bad, refrain from spanking. If you’re teaching them to be patient, be patient with them. Resist the urge to end arguments with “because I said so”. Show them they are deserving of the same respect you want them to pay others.
Reward their efforts
Our children see soon enough that doing the wrong thing can lead to immediate rewards. Behaving in selfish or aggressive ways — lying, stealing, cheating off their friends’ work, or putting down others— can get them what they want more often than doing the right thing. Which is why it is all the more important to reward your child’s efforts to be good. If they own up to their mistakes, stand up to bullies or struggle to do homework by themselves, reward them for trying their best, rather than on the outcome.
Check your own biases
Pay attention to how you speak to others around your kids. Do you gossip about neighbors’ private lives? Have you ever said anything insulting about someone’s weight, skin color, or religion? When you hear about any injustice, is your instinct to blame the victim? None of us are free from such biases, but we can choose to work on them. Prejudice is a learned behavior, but fortunately, it can be unlearned by sincerely listening to people who are different from us.
As we self-isolate in a pandemic, we feel more acutely than ever the consequences of being cut off from our fellow humans. Empathy is what binds us to each other, and it’s important that our children don’t ever lose this superpower.