Building empathy in children

Parentree-editors 2008-11-08 12:09:27

What is empathy?

Merriam Webster says empathy is "the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner"

In practical terms, this is about being nice to people who are underprivileged, not being hurtful, sharing, fairness etc., All are critical social skills.

How do we teach our kids empathy? Here are some tips

Talk about suffering

The next time you stop at a traffic light and spot someone asking for money, give some, and use it to teach your kids. Talk about why those people are there.

When you drive by poor areas and slums, point it out to children and tell them about why people live there.

Media often carries images of people suffering, like bomb blasts etc., If your children are exposed to it, do have a conversation with them about it. Talk to them about your feeling. Were you sad, hurt, disappointed?

Express your empathy

It does not have to be just by giving money at the traffic light. You can do many of the following.

  • Take children to events that benefit children's charities.
  • Get them to donate some part of the their Diwali fireworks money to an orphanage
  • Ask them to donate clothes when the next flood or earthquake relief effort happens
  • Ask them to help in household chores
  • Ask them to help our older people in the household (if there are any)
  • And most importantly, help them when they are genuinely in need

When your child expresses their empathy, commend them on their feelings

Speak up whenever you see insensitive behaviour

When you see your child behave in an unacceptable manner, step up and state clearly that the behaviour was not sensitive. This could be when they do not share a toy, or when they would rather watch TV than play with a friend etc., Don't tell they they are "bad". Tell them that their behaviour was not acceptable. Explain to them why their behaviour would have hurt someone else.

Ask them the classic question - "How would you like it if someone did that to you?". 

Also, if you witness your child being the victim of insensitive behaviour, teach them to speak up. Ask them to tell their friend "I was hurt when you said that. How would you like it if someone did that to you?". This helps everyone around learn about empathy.

Listen when children are telling you about something that happened

Listening is one of the most important tools for empathy.  Often kids come to us with a narration of something that happened to them which they did not like or some way they got hurt. Listen carefully to the narrative. Often parents don't even listen because we know its about something trivial. Yes, the consequences may have been trivial but the opportunity to tell us is not. So go ahead, listen to them and then ask them a few leading questions that shows them that the consequences are trivial. When they do this, children are only looking for empathy from us. Its not about the end result. So listen.


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