Want your kids to be empathetic? Teach them how to be!
As parents, we set high expectations for our children. We want them to succeed academically, take care of their bodies, enroll in sports and extracurricular activities, be successful readers, eat healthy, socialize, and be kind to others around them. The list goes on and on.
Sometimes we utter phrases like, “Mya needs to be more accepting of others,” or “Benny really needs to read more books”. It’s often easier for us to criticize and expect more from our children than we do ourselves. If you want your child to value reading, wouldn’t it help if she saw you with a book in your hand now and then?
One of the buzz words you may have been hearing about for some time now is empathy.
Empathy rocks, and it’s relevant to all beings everywhere. Empathy is the ability to listen and really sit with someone when they are suffering. It’s getting down to their level without feeling guilty, patronizing them, judging, or feeling sorry for them. Empathy does not mean comparing your past experiences with their current situation or offering solutions.
Let me connect this to teaching. If I want my students to be kind, respectful, or empathetic, I start with role playing. We act out different scenarios and the students brainstorm ways to respond. Which response is the kindest? Which response do you like the best? The least? Next, I take the time to explicitly discuss what the quality I’m trying to cultivate in my class looks, sounds, and feels like. Then we write all of their ideas down on an anchor chart and keep it up in the classroom for students to refer to throughout the year.
I observe my students throughout the day, and depending on the student, I may congratulate them privately if I “catch” them being kind or empathetic, or I may bring their name up in front of the class if this student enjoys recognition. Oh yes, and I’m sure to model empathy in my responses to questions, working through misunderstandings or working with a student’s challenging behaviors.
We are our children’s first teachers and they look up to us more than we know. Parenting may seem different from teaching, but it’s our responsibility to teach our children empathy through our actions, words, and the way we treat others.
How can you foster empathy in your household?
We have to listen to our children. If your child needs help, is struggling with homework, or had a fight with a friend, be there for her. She needs you, not always a solution, just your open heart and a listening ear.
Value Their Suffering
You’ve heard adults say, “Oh, must be nice being a kid, getting to play all day, enjoy it now because once you’re an adult…..” Your child is making sense of the world. Her feelings matter and they are not “less than” yours just because you have more responsibilities. If her hamster dies, a toy breaks, or she’s making sense of a loved one becoming ill, her suffering matters. She may need a hug, or just to know that her feelings are normal and it’s okay to feel the way she does.
The seemingly inconsequential interactions we have with our children are important. They will remember them. Try to put kindness first. Catch yourself before you react in a way you will regret, but be compassionate to yourself if you do have a melt down. You can always admit your mistake and apologize.
Remember that our past experiences condition our reactions and they don’t define us. You can rewire your brain so you can recognize your feeling tones, “oh, this is frustration, or annoyance,” accept that you are feeling that way, and move on without “becoming” the feeling tone or blowing up. Focus on the positive and throw away the rest.
Discuss Examples and Non-Examples
The world is your classroom. When you see people doing the right thing, being kind, empathetic, or just good-hearted individuals, point it out. When you see people who are not, don’t talk negatively about their actions; ignore what has happened, or shield your child. Discuss what happened and ways the person could have taken the higher road. When you and your partner have an argument in front of your children, come back once things have settled and discuss responses that would be more beneficial in the future as a family.
Avoid Using “Good” or “Bad”
This is hard, and I fall into this often with my infant. I’ll say, “What a good girl,” when she smiles, learns something new, or is enjoying herself. When we put labels on behaviors when they are pleasant to us and call them good, our children may avoid expressing their other feeling tones in the future.
Instead, try to change your language. Try, “Oh, wow, it looks like you are enjoying what you are doing,” or “You are so intelligent, look how you figured that out!” If your child is expressing challenging behaviors, you may say, “I see that you are suffering right now. Is there something I can do to help?” or “Are you struggling? Do you need some time alone or a hug?”
Seek out written by Black and Indigenous authors, as well as People of Color. Follow disabled, Autistic and LGBTQIA+ authors. The point is to show your child that they can connect with different kinds of people when they show up, practice active listening, value everyone’s perspective, and raise the voices of marginalized groups.
Foster relationships with adults and children different from you. Shut down false narratives that perpetuate false and harmful stereotypes about people. Explain to your child the danger of a single story.
Our world is in dire need of empathy and kindness. You can take these small steps to ensure you are doing your part.