In General Knowledge for the Family, Relationships

Teaching Empathy – Encouraging Appropriate Behavior

These days, bullying is rampant.  From locker rooms to social media, kids gang up on other children, leaving them in tears or worse, causing them to consider or attempt suicide.  When you read the constant reports about such merciless bullying, you have to wonder, how can you teach children to be empathetic? Are our children lacking empathy?

Do you want your children to be sympathetic?  Fine, but be aware that there is a big difference in the definition between sympathy and empathy. Being sympathetic means that you feel sorry about the suffering of others.  But empathy goes deeper. To be empathetic means that you actually “experience the feelings of another person.”  In her article on Teaching Empathy, Dr. Gwen Dewar defines empathy as “Taking another person’s perspective (or, alternatively, ‘putting oneself in another person’s shoes’).”

Teaching your children to understand what it feels like to be bullied helps them develop empathy but this isn’t easy.  Communication is obviously the key. You can’t just say, “Don’t do this.”  You must say, “How would you feel it that happened to you?”

What is Empathy? 

According to New York Times blogger Jessica Lahey, “In order to be truly empathetic, children need to learn more than simple perspective-taking; they need to know how to value, respect and understand other people’s views, even when they don’t agree with them.”

A recent project from Harvard University, Making Caring Common,  found that adults may be sending their children the wrong messages, and as a result, undermining their ability to be empathetic. According to the report, “The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults are Sending About Values”, a wide majority of youth across multiple races and cultures feel it is more important to achieve personal success or individual happiness rather than to care for others.  They also ranked the practice of fairness as being lower than self-interest.  The researchers were concerned because, as they point out, healthy societies consist of people who put the common good above their own.  A lack of empathy would preclude this.

The Harvard researchers found specific requirements necessary to help children develop empathy:

  • Children need opportunities to practice being empathetic, sometimes with the guidance of adults.
  • They need to learn to zoom in and zoom out.  To zoom in means evaluating the child’s inner circle, while zooming out allows them to consider the big picture.
  • This one should be obvious – children need strong, moral role models.
  • Children need to be guided to avoid destructive feelings.

Modelling Empathy

But how do you model empathy?  One of the most important ways to teach empathy is to model empathetic behavior.  Suppose you see someone in line at the grocery store who doesn’t have enough money for their purchases.  They start putting items back.  If you can, offer to pay for what you can afford, or at least let them know that you understand their discomfort.  You can say, “Oh, I know how you feel – I’ve had that happen, too.”  Standing silently while the scene plays out sends a clear message to your child – don’t get involved. But staying out of a critical situation where another person is uncomfortable can be perceived as a lack of empathy, something which may make the child feel guilty later when they look back on their lack of action.

You can use various venues to demonstrate that you empathize with people.  For instance, if you hear about a bullying incident on television, you can discuss this with your child.  Do they know someone who has had a mean comment directed at them on Facebook or via Twitter. Ask them to imagine that this had happened to them instead – how would they feel?

Reasons for Apathetic Behavior

It is useful to look into the reasons why some children seem to be lacking empathy.

Peer Pressure

One of the biggest reasons for bullying is peer pressure.  The popular kids at your child’s school may determine that someone is worthy of their scorn and they start picking on that child.  Maybe the child doesn’t have the right clothes, or can’t afford to buy regular lunches and has to have reduced-price lunches.  Talk to your child about how they can help this picked-on student be strong in the face of such bullies.

Are they afraid to take a stand?  You need to help them understand  that being popular in school is only a temporary situation, that someday they will feel bad that they were involved in such mean behavior.  Even if all they do is ignore it, assure them that they are enabling the other kids by not speaking up.

Fighting the Cliques

One of the biggest reasons for bullying is the crowd mentality.  Kids who are popular often form exclusive groups, known as cliques.

Surprisingly, many kids in cliques don’t want to be in them, but they don’t know what to do to re-establish their own identity.  Being in a clique can be difficult even for those involved.  While it may be nice to have so-called popular friends, children sometimes discover that the requirements of the clique are not worth the effort. They may have to conform to the clique’s requirements – for instance, to dress in a particular way, to act in a certain way, and again, to reject kids who may not meet the standards the clique deems important.

How do you help your kids overcome the lure of cliques?  Remind them that diversity is important and a worthwhile life goal.  Maybe it’s nice to have friends on the cheerleading squad, but it might also be nice to hang around with a math geek, be friends with an artist or musician, or just have a friend who is loyal.  Since cliques often have specific requirements, encourage your kids to think for themselves, to treasure their individuality. Teach them that not only is it important for them to appreciate their own unique attributes but it is also important to appreciate those of others.  No one wants a cookie-cutter world where everyone is the same.

Empathy Fosters Diversity

Empathy involves more than simply feeling sorry for other people – it involves doing something about the situation if they are suffering.  This is difficult for some children to understand.  They need to know that they have the ability to make changes for others.  This bit of wisdom is empowering – not only can you relate to the problems of others, but you can actually do something about it.

A recent article from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that bias.  A mere attempt at empathy reduces racial biases. According to the blog, Fostering Empathy, it is important for children to grow up in loving, supportive environments so they can develop the strength and courage to embrace empathy as a lifestyle.  In a world that is ever more interconnected, children need to be taught to understand that others have differences and to feel bond even to those who may lead different lifestyles.

Again, the most important thing a parent can do is model the behavior they want their children to develop. “Our children observe our empathy when we assist someone who just dropped their groceries, return a phone left behind, stop a joke based on stereotypes, bring dinner to a new mom, or stick up for kids who are getting picked on.”  Other methods of encouraging empathy include volunteering for various organizations as a family, getting involved with people from other cultures, and, as always, talking about the lessons that must be learned to foster empathy. Kids who learn empathetic values become adults who know how to treat others kindly.

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