Encouraging Empathy in Our Children

Recently I asked my daughter’s 17 year old boyfriend what he understood by the word empathy. “Empathy – that’s something like sympathy right? I don’t really know much about empathy”. Well, whether he knows the formal definition of empathy, he certainly exhibits empathic characteristics. Is empathy something that can be taught and learned? Is having the ability to be empathic a necessary quality? The research on empathy clearly shows that children (and adults too) can be taught to be empathic, and the benefits of developing this quality have resounding positive implications not only socially, but also academically and in the work place. Being able to respond to people in an empathic manner is a huge predicator of success.

The Value of Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of another person and imagine oneself in another’s place. We can be empathic in another person’s experience of joy or sadness. Sympathy, on the other hand, is having an awareness of the suffering of another. M.F. Basch (1983) notes that in the Greek derivation of empathy, the prefix em-means “in” or “within” while the prefix sym-means “with, or “along with” Empathy then, is a more comprehensive ability of putting oneself in another’s shoes.

What are the advantages of being able to put oneself in the place of another? Empathy and academic outcomes research shows a remarkable correlation between children’s training and skills in empathetic understanding and their academic performance. For example, researchers (e.g. Bonner and Aspy) have identified significant correlations between students scores on measures of empathetic understanding and their grade point averages, and a review of research related to empathy training/instruction indicates that this instruction enhances both critical thinking skills and creative thinking(Gallo, 1989). One of the primary methods of empathy training is encouraging a child to take the role of another. This practice of role playing creates many positive benefits Role playing, or putting oneself in another’s shoes:

  1. Fosters insight into different perspectives and promotes genuine open-mindedness
  2. Discourages hasty and superficial problem examination
  3. Facilitates construction of more fully elaborated and frequently novel problem models
  4. Discourages belief rigidity
  5. Encourages cognitive and personal flexibility
  6. Practices persistent probing, engaged examination of an issue in alternation with flexibility – (Gallo)

Ways to Develop Empathy in Our Families

There are many ways to encourage empathic responsiveness in your children, and chances are you are already doing many of these techniques naturally. For example many parents use bedtime stories to engage their child in an exploration of feelings about the characters and their experiences in the story. Conflicts arising between siblings present an excellent opportunity to strengthen empathic understanding. Asking the children involved how they feel about the conflict, and how they imagine the other is feeling and thinking encourages the child to take another perspective. Specific strategies that are associated with increases in empathy include:

  1. Training in interpersonal perception: This is a structured teaching approach, in which children are taught what empathy is, how it develops, how to recognize different emotive states in themselves and others, and how to respond to others positively. A beautiful description of empathy can be found in Alfred Adler’s approach to relating to others: “To see with the eyes of another, to hear with the ears of another, to feel with the heart of another.” When we can truly understand another’s experience, we can better understand how to relate in a constructive manner.
  2. Initial focus on one’s own feelings: Children are encouraged to become aware of and name the many different types of feelings they have. By focusing on their own feelings- and which feelings are associated with which situations, the ability to assume another’s perspective is increased.
  3. Focus on similarities between one self and others: When a child is able to see another as similar to her/himself, the empathic process is increased. We teaching children that beneath the veneer of differences, all humanity share needs for connecting, belonging, contributing, being valued, loving and being loved. By focusing on similarities, we are able to celebrate and appreciate our differences.
  4. Practicing perceiving another’s perspective: Empathy is not something that comes easily to very young children, therefore the more opportunities the child has to practice role-playing or perspective taking; the easier it becomes to spontaneously empathize. What would you do in that situation? How do you think you’d feel? Are great questions to facilitate perspective formation.
  5. Positive trait attribution: This refers to emphasizing and reinforcing positive traits to enable the child to envision him/herself as a worthy and caring person. For example a parent might say “Gee, I see that you shared with your brother because you are such a generous person who enjoys making others feel good.” Reinforcing the positive traits increases the likelihood that the positive behaviours occur.

Parental Modelling – Parents are the child’s first teachers, and children do as they see. If you can model taking another’s perspective, understanding how someone may feel in a situation even though it is different from your own experience, being in touch with your own feelings, and extending care and understanding in your relationships, children are likely to adopt these practices.

Now is a pivotal time for us all to develop increased empathy in our children and in ourselves. Empathy connects us on an emotional level allowing us to sense another’s feelings, experiences and needs. When we can empathize, we don’t judge, criticize or react negatively. Relating with empathy opens our hearts and our minds, it encourages compassion, increases one’s analytical and creative abilities and leads to mutually satisfying outcomes.

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The Summer Day

Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.