If I had the power to impact the world in one way, it would 100% be to significantly increase the empathy that we have for one another. When I think about the vast differences that we have, empathy is the one characteristic that I think has the impact to foster a world of more compassion. As a mom, I want my child to be empathetic. However, it seems damn near impossible to instill this characteristic in my toddler, when everything at this age seems to be about “me, me, me!”
So I started to do some research into how I could actually start to plant the seeds of empathy into Camille at the tender age of two. I find that many of the techniques that I learned are things that Jo and I have been doing with Camille since day 1, which is so reassuring! I also know that patience is invaluable in trying to get a toddler to think about their fellow humans. The process is challenging, but not impossible!
#1: Lead By Example
What better way to teach empathy than to actively model it in everyday life. If a child knows how it feels when someone empathizes with them, they may be more inclined to the same with others. If there is one thing I’ve learned about children is that they are sponges – they absorb and repeat learned behaviors. Why not demonstrate in everyday life what giving and receiving empathy looks and feels like?
#2: Make Discussing Feelings the Norm
My mother did not discuss the human emotions that she had with my siblings and me when we were growing up. I vividly remember seeing my mother cry for the very first time and I was flabbergasted. It just wasn’t normal to see her express human emotions.
In the same vein of showing your child empathy to teach them empathy, make discussing feelings the norm. Humans have a range of emotions and feelings and it’s completely normal. I know as parents, sometimes we want to shield our children from the not-so-pleasant feelings of life; however, the most powerful and loving thing that we can do is show our children how to successfully navigate through the feelings that they will most likely experience.
One way that I’ve learned to make expressing feelings the norm is to ask questions. Whenever Camille is watching tv, reading a book, or interacting with other children and something challenging occurs to her or others, I ask questions. Questions such as “What happened in this situation? What should have happened? What could have been done differently? How do you feel? How do you think the character/this person feels?”
I wasn’t sure if discussing feelings was increasing Camille’s ability to empathize until we recently watched the live-action version of Dumbo. There’s a scene where Dumbo is separated from his mom and Camille balled! She was swimming in a sea of tears because little Dumbo wasn’t with his “Mama.” I tried to console her, but it was a point where I realized “Hey! This kid is learning to empathize with situations outside of her little world.”
#3: It Doesn’t Happen Overnight
The nicest way that I can say this is that very young children generally have a “me, me, me” mentality. I’m no psychologist, but I am of the opinion that this is developmentally appropriate. So as their guides, we must be patient as we teach them how to empathize. One way that I believe we can help to shift young kids away from a self-centered frame of mind is to teach them habits that align with kindness like opening the door for others and other small acts of kindness.
One thing that I’ve learned from teaching formally is that school and learning should not be just academics, but rather it is important that we teach children character and life skills as well. As we help our children to maneuver throughout life, as adults and models, we should ensure that we have checked our emotional constancy and honed patience before we expect the same from them. Just as we should be patient with children as we teach them empathy, we also need to be patient with ourselves.
#4: Help Them to See the Commonalities
During my undergrad studies, I remember an instructor saying that “It’s easier to empathize with others when we see that we share commonalities.” I’m not sure of the scientific validity behind this statement, however, from personal experience, I’ve found this to be true. Once our kids can see that they make up multiple communities and groups, it might be easier for them to develop an empathetic spirit. Some of the groups that our kids exist in might be religious, regional, play-related, or otherwise. Once we can show them that people around them share some of the experiences that they do, they may be more inclined to act in a way that expresses empathy and care.
Seeing the fruits of my parenting labor is very fulfilling and I have a great desire to see my baby develop into a well-rounded person. As I previously stated, I am not a psychologist and I certainly don’t know everything, but I am open and willing to learn! What practices have you engaged in to help develop empathy with your kids?