How can I teach my child empathy?
Empathy isn't intuitive as people have thought it to be. In fact, it's more of a gut reaction than a function of reasoning that's connected to feelings or associated with mindfulness. So, when someone falls down as they ride a bike or skate, don't be surprised when your child laughs instead of wondering how they can help. They probably haven't learned how to be empathetic, which is a complex skill to learn for most people, not just adults. Luckily, you can teach them how to put themselves in other people's shoes, so they are the first to help next time. But, before we look at how to help your child be more empathetic, let's first understand what empathy is.
What is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to feel or imagine how someone else feels in a situation, then respond with care. For example, think of a little girl, Phiona, in a different part of the world who cannot move around because she doesn't have a wheelchair.
Normally, a child who hasn't interacted with a person with a disability may find it challenging to understand what Phiona is going through.
A child who has learned to be empathetic, on the other hand, can put themselves in Phiona's shoes. They can imagine how challenging life would be if they couldn't move around. They can even imagine an appropriate response they would have if they met Phiona and had to talk to her about the challenge she is facing.
How can I nurture empathy in my kids?
1) Model empathy Have you ever heard of the saying that kids do what you do, not what you tell them to do? Well, once they hit 18 months, your child starts behaving the same way you do, even when it comes to others. This continues until they learn that they are a different person and make their own choices. But, even then, they will still look up to you and mirror what you do.
Thus, empathize with your child and build trust, security, and attachment. For instance, if your child falls out with a friend at school and is sad about it, listen to them, put yourself in their shoes and comfort them. Let them know you know how they feel and how sad it is when they lose a friend. Next time you are sad, or someone around them, you will notice that your child will want to 'return the favor' and ask you how they can help. This means they are learning to be empathetic.
2) Make caring for others a priority As mentioned, kids will follow what is important to you and even do what they see you do. Thus, make caring for others a priority and let your child hear you say it. For instance, say things like "It's important to be kind and happy" as opposed to only saying "as long as you are happy." You could also ask your child's teacher if your kid is caring at school and how they behave with others. Also, take on hands-on activities that help them care for others.
For example, sign them up for an empathy box from Little Do Gooders where they can travel the world with Felicity the Fawn and Fun the Fox to meet kids worldwide who need their help. They can, for example, help build Phiona a new wheelchair, expand their perspective of the world, and foster compassion, empathy, and problem-solving.
3) Recognize what gets in the way of you being empathetic Let's be honest. Kids can get on your nerves and push your buttons in ways you never thought imaginable. These challenging times make it difficult to be empathetic with them, which affects the trust and security your kids feel. While it may be difficult to always rise to the occasion, always note when you are less empathetic with your child. Is it when you are stressed or when you come back home exhausted from work? Once you know this, you can easily find solutions, such as going for a jog to reduce stress before interacting with your kids.
4) Be patient Every skill takes time to develop. Your child may not be as empathetic at age three as their counterparts are by age ten. Certainly, some adults and teens haven't mastered the skill. Remember that a huge part of growing up once your child hits toddlerhood is focusing on oneself, so take it easy and let your child learn with time. Keep reminding them of why it's essential to be empathetic.
For example, role-play situation where someone is unfair to another then ask your child what they think about the situation the best solution. According to research, role play, where you ask your child to act out a situation, feeling, or behavior, effectively increases their emotional intelligence, a big part of how they learn empathy. For instance, ask your child to try getting around without a wheelchair as Phiona does, then ask them to describe the experience and how it made them feel.
5) Empathy is a skill, not a quantity Most times, you may be tempted to think of empathy as a quantity. For instance, you may think your child has little empathy. However, if you look closely, you will notice that it's not difficult for your child to be empathetic with a family member, people close to them, and even those who are like them in some way. So, teaching them to be empathetic outside this circle is the real task, which is where Little Do Gooders comes in. Engaging with Felicity and Fin as they help kids worldwide also helps your kid develop empathy for those outside their circle.
Empathy may be a complex skill, but like every other skill, kids can learn how to develop and strengthen it. So, as you teach your child to be empathetic, remember to lead by example as they will be watching closely to see if you can walk the talk. Also, answer all your child's questions honestly and help them deal with their emotions as they learn this new skill.