Ask each generation of parents and the response will likely be that trying to teach kids a natural level of sympathy seems to be getting harder and harder. With the modern world bombarded with media and visuals that show hardness, violence, crime, a lack of empathy, and competition at all costs being the true winners, it’s no surprise that children are becoming less and less able to reach out and care selflessly. However, sympathy is not a hopeless pursuit. It’s in fact the very thing that every new generation should be taught again and again. Everyone can learn from example, including those that are younger than them as well as older.
The concept of caring and being empathic is a natural one. As humans we are taught to care from day one. Our mothers care for us as helpless babies and, until we are able to exercise independence bit by bit, we depend on that maternal nurturing for protection, growth, education, and comfort. So the ability to understand what caring for someone is tends to be no great surprise. In fact, toddlers and children are able to extend caring and sympathize from their first year. But something odd happens around age two and three. We dub it the “terrible twos” but this is the point where girls and boys start to diverge in their behavior. Girls are trained and taught through restraint and control that being selfish is wrong. However, boys are taught to start being competitive, the very antithesis of sharing and caring. By the age of five girls are able to connect with each other emotionally, yet boys start to fight, jostle, compete and grab from each other. Yet by first grade even the girls are starting to compete as well, but there focus is for attention and emotional rank versus physical control of desired items and toys. For girls, they begin to practice the rules of social networking early on, developing a pecking order just the like the boys, with a top dog leader and then followers in groups. Children learn quickly, often as much from each other as from formal lessons.
Early lessons of sympathy are often the key for laying down the groundwork in young children. It’s often the case by the time children reach teenagehood they can’t hear formal education very well. The attention span of teens is temporarily hijacked by their extreme hormonal and physical changes. As a result, they are often prone to distraction and emotional frustration. Learning concepts of caring don’t land well as a result. However, with small children, the mind is still extremely open and teachable. The entire world is being absorbed until the age of 10, so establishing a mental infrastructure of caring and empathy is quite possible starting in Kindergarten or preschool.
Repetition and reinforcement is often the most tried and true form of education with young children. They are not always the most accurate in memory with a single lesson. However, repetition often reinforces sympathy concepts and empathy lessons, building long-term memory rules. And it’s a long-term memory learning that sticks with people well into the older years, far more than any kind of passing experience or temporary lesson might stick.
A good example of long-term memory establishment is the method by which early math and the alphabet are learned. Long before children understand what words and math formulas mean, they memorize the alphabet and math results in the form of tables. Later, when these units are memorized thoroughly, children are then able to apply them to more complex configurations. The configurations may be new and unknown territory, but the kids know what each unit is by memory; it can’t be anything else. As a result, assemblies generally becomes manageable and understood by their individual units.
What Kind of Sympathy is Best?
Is there really more than one version of sympathy? Absolutely. The idea of caring and being empathic is not limited to just one situation. It’s also rooted in a good understanding of ethics and what it means in terms of good behavior. And this is the basis that children should be taught from day one. Sympathy isn’t an abstract idea or song. It’s a real practice and commitment that every child should be committing to and following every day. Soon enough, reinforcement makes the behavior of caring and empathy automatic. Not caring becomes foreign and abstract instead. And children will favor caring over not caring in more situations because their mind frame is built on an ethical foundation that caring is a good thing to do all the time, not just when it’s easy to do.
Kids will eventually learn through practice and routine that sympathy comes automatically, like a natural reaction when they see harm and suffering. As adults we call this being human and having a conscience to care for someone or something else when it is suffering or in obvious pain. But to get there children have to be exposed and reinforced to the ideas of how sympathy works and how it is applied. The training starts with caring for family and friends. Then it extend farther out to those whom the child goes to school and works with. Then eventually the child realized through learning that sympathy can be generic and apply to anyone in a bad situation. While this may sound complex, in reality children learn these steps quite fast.
How Do We Have Children Who Are Unsympathetic?
Not caring is a non-human trait. It’s a learned behavior that goes against the fabric of being a whole human being. Instead, the approach shuts down caring and related emotions and replaces them either with anger or unfeeling discipline. A lack of caring generally comes from a lack of training in the topic or, worse, a shocking trauma that freezes the ability to be empathic and replaces it instead with discipline that relies heavily on direction. The military is very good at making this kind of conversion in people; it uses boot camp to shock sympathy out of recruits and to replace it instead with non-emotional violence and execution of orders.
However, with young children one doesn’t have to build elaborate programs or trials to make children unsympathetic. Instead, the catalyst begins at home – children who don’t receive nurturing growing up and instead get yelling, mental pain and harsh conditions often tend to be the most unsympathetic towards peers and anyone who reminds them of their broken home life. So once one realized a given child is coming from this kind of environment, it’s not much of surprise if the boy or girl seems harsh or cold. What tends to be the surprise is when they still are able to exhibit caring, words of sympathy and empathy despite their home life.
There is no magic bullet or trick that makes children automatically sympathetic and empathic towards others. Instead, it takes a long process of ongoing education and reinforcement. Some children pick up the lessons early and make them part of the mental framework the child grows up with. Other students don’t pick up on the critical cues and ultimately need to see situations for themselves to understand the power of caring. Even children are uniquely different and separate from each other despite their newness to the world.
Caring is a natural part of being a human being, and children inherently know this lesson. They just need to be reminded repeatedly in their early years, and the principles will solidify for the rest of their lives. Granted, some people will changed as adults, but the large majority will be far better adjusted and empathic than those left without any sympathy training at all. While by sympathetic is natural, our culture advertises otherwise, and a lack of reinforcement then leaves us to being educated by our media and entertainment elements on how to behave socially.