3 Keys to Developing Children's Empathy
by Kathy Slattengren, M. Ed., Priceless Parenting (sign up for monthly parenting newsletter and receive 20+ printable charts for kids and parents)
(listen to article read by the author)
Children are not born with empathy. They are born with the capacity to have empathy but it only develops under certain conditions. Parents play a critical role in developing their children's empathy.
In their book, Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential - and Endangered
, Perry and Szalavitz write “The essence of empathy is the ability to stand in another's shoes, to feel what it's like there and to care about making it better if it hurts.” They document numerous cases where children have not experienced adequate empathy while growing up. These kids' behavior towards others also reflects a lack of empathy which often leads to serious problems.
There are three key things you can do to help develop empathy in your children:
Key 1: Show empathy when responding to your children's behavior.
Children learn to be empathetic by being treated with empathy. This begins when they are babies with loving adults responding to their cries and needs. Soothing young children when they are upset lays the foundation for their own development of empathy.
Older children learn empathy when you respond to their behavior in a caring way rather than with anger. Instead of yelling "How could you do that?" or "What were you thinking?" respond in a way that demonstrates you understand what your child is going through. For example, if your child spilled juice, you might say "Oops! That's unfortunate. Let me know if you need any help cleaning it up."
Reflecting your child's feelings is another way of showing empathy. If your child has angrily thrown her math book down, you could say "I can see you're frustrated. I get frustrated too when I'm having trouble doing something."
Expressing empathy puts you and your child on the same side of the problem. When you show compassion and understanding, your child is in a better position for thinking about a solution to the problem.
Key 2: Demonstrate genuine empathy.
When using empathy, it needs to come from your heart. If it doesn't sound genuine, children will quickly see through it as fake empathy.
One mom of two teens complained that she tried to be empathetic to their problems but it only seemed to make them mad. She went on to explain that she would often respond to their problems by saying "bummer". Instead of feeling genuinely understood, they felt angry because it seemed like she was belittling them.
To see a situation from your child's viewpoint, it can help to think of a situation where you've experienced something similar to what your child is experiencing. For example, if you've ever ordered a meal at a restaurant and then regretted your choice when the meal actually came, you can understand how your child might feel in a similar situation like the following one.
Pretend you asked your child, "What would you like for breakfast: cereal, pancakes or toast?" Suppose your child chooses cereal but when you place the cereal in front of her she says "I changed my mind. I want pancakes." You may be tempted to yell "You asked for cereal; I got you cereal; Now eat it!"
Instead you could show more understanding by responding with something like "Now that you have your cereal you're disappointed you didn't chose pancakes. Tomorrow morning you can choose pancakes." If she becomes upset, it's better to acknowledge her feelings again with something like "I realize you are upset." instead of "Stop complaining and eat!"
Key 3: Discuss other people's perspectives
Reading books can help develop understanding of other people's points of view. Perry and Szalavitz talk about the importance of reading to children and discussing the actions and feelings of the characters. "When you read to them or discuss books, ask what they think the characters are thinking and feeling. Point out facial expressions and body language and talk about what these mean."
You can have this same type of discussion with the events happening in your children's lives. For example, if a new student has joined your child's class, you can talk to your child about how it must feel to be a new student in the class and to not know anyone yet. By trying to understand how this new student is feeling, your child may be inspired to find ways to help this new student feel more comfortable.
When you help your children see the world from different viewpoints you help them develop their empathy. When children can feel empathy for others, they are far less likely to engage in behaviors like bullying.
By treating your children with empathy and guiding them to treat others that way, you are helping to build a more caring community for everyone. This is a very worthy goal indeed!