Raising Children With Empathy
Updated: Jul 25, 2018
Thursday, November 16, 2017
When your friend breaks down because her loved one has passed away, you will automatically try to comfort or reassure her. The instinct to respond in this manner is called ‘empathy’ and it has to be nurtured from a young age.
While infancy is actually the best time to start teaching children about empathy, do not expect them to be able to demonstrate empathy until they are about four years old.
What is ‘em-pa-thee’?
Empathy is the ability to share and understand another person’s feelings. It is an important part of relationships, whether it is among family, friends or co-workers.
The ability to understand others means that you will be able to gauge what the other person is thinking or feeling, and be mindful of their needs when you interact with them.
In other words, empathy is what makes us human.
Children who can show empathy will do better in school, be able to better handle social situations, and will be well-adjusted adults.
Show and tell
Very young children, such as infants or toddlers, learn empathy from how you treat them when they are upset or crying.
From the age of four, preschoolers can begin to understand when you talk to them about how other people feel.
At the primary age, children can start to grapple with moral decisions that require them to understand how their actions will affect other people’s feelings.
Regardless of their age, children cannot learn empathy in one sitting. There are many moments in their everyday lives where you can model and teach empathy to them. Here are a few examples:
When someone is hurt, don’t (just) say “sorry”.
We’ve all done this: when our child accidentally or deliberately bumps another child or destroys something, we force them to apologise.
But have you noticed that after a few times of this happening, your child automatically mutters “sorry” and then goes on to play as if nothing had happened?
Kids, especially young ones, do not have the emotional and cognitive development to understand true remorse.
But you can help them learn to make the other person feel better. If your child has knocked another child over, gather them together and explain that the other child has been hurt.
Ask the injured child if she is okay, and get your child to help make things better, e.g. by fetching some water. Finally, encourage your child to make a promise that he won’t do it again.
What about the actual apology? We find that children will naturally learn to apologise sincerely when they see adults modelling it in a meaningful way. If you accidentally kicked their chair as you were walking past, you should say, “I’m sorry I kicked your chair. I will be more careful next time.”
When they say something unkind, don’t shout and embarrass them.
Children do not understand why it is hurtful to call someone fat, old or ugly. Chances are, they are merely repeating it because they heard someone else (usually an adult) say it.
If your three-year-old says, “Look at that fat man!”, don’t scold or hit him. Instead, quietly explain why such words make another person feel sad. Help him to see it from the other person’s point of view by asking if he’s ever felt sad because of something someone said to him.
Be aware that the lesson may not stick straightaway and your child may repeat this a few more times until he can really comprehend it.
Kids will be kids, and a bit of insensitivity does not mean that they are inherently unkind.
However, the first step towards an inclusive world where people of all gender identities, races and abilities are accepted is to teach our children to accept and understand the differences in other people.
Remember: their behaviour is a mirror of yours. They are watching you at every moment. If you do not show empathy for those around you, then neither will your children.