Teaching empathy to children
Empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. A good skill to have if you plan to make a meaningful contribution to the world. A good skill to teach your kids.
In fact, empathy is a trait you want to instil in your children as early as you possibly can, especially in this day and age.
Let’s face it; the digital era hasn’t been a good one for empathy. In fact, it’s been an easy and conveniently anonymous avenue for rampant meanness and deliberate hurt. And while that meanness and hurt still lurks in the darkest corners of schoolyards and even kindergartens, it’s grown the legs of a vile and relentless spider prowling the world wide web; a toxic epidemic of emotional abuse.
Sadly, a lot of that abuse comes from kids; kids without empathy. As parents, we have a responsibility to ensure it’s not one of ours. How do we do that?
We teach our kids the simple joys of empathy
Empathy is a wonderful thing. The ability to value the feelings and emotions of others and relate to them in a compassionate way is one of the most empowering skills we can ever have. But it has to come naturally.
So, equally naturally, we have to teach our kids to empathise by default, not due to any expectation of reward. The more we do this at an early age, the less likely our child will ever turn into one of the school bullies or cyberbullies we all detest.
At what age do kids develop empathy?
At what age do kids learn to ride a bike, learn to speak, read or write? It’s a highly individual thing and will remain so as long as we humans continue on our own unique, unpredictable journeys like the robots we aren’t.
So, let’s lay on the empathy and set your kids on the road to a caring childhood.
Help your kids to understand their own emotions first
That’s from the first day they have the foggiest notion of what you’re talking about. If they’re crying or, worse, having a tantrum, ask them why. If you know, softly explain that you know – “You’re upset because Daddy went to work, right?” “Oh no, that was the last yoghurt. Sorry, are you upset about that?”
Start tuning into their emotions as accurately as you can as soon as you can. It’s the beginning of them understanding themselves; the beginning of empathy.
Be it a book or TV show, don’t just read it or let it roll by; stop and talk about the way characters are feeling.
“Patrick looks really upset with SpongeBob because he thinks SpongeBob didn’t get him a Valentine’s present. What’s Patrick thinking right now?”
Invite your child to get inside Patrick’s head and describe his emotions. Chances are they’ll enjoy trying simply because they’re interacting with a favourite character in a favourite show.
Conduct an in-depth post-bout analysis
The time to ask your oldest child why he’s hitting your youngest child in the face is not while your oldest child is hitting your youngest child in the face.
Separate them and wait until the dust settles before calmly asking what each of them was feeling before it happened and while it happened.
Any young, impressionable child hearing how scared or upset another child felt while under attack will slowly begin to empathise and realise how badly their actions can affect another human being.
Resolve your own arguments in front of your kids
No joke, if your kids see you have an argument and then re-emerge from behind closed doors all rosy again, what have they learned about the conflict?
Do your making up in front of your kids, involve them and even tell them why you argued if the subject matter is for general exhibition. Not only will they see that it’s okay to disagree, they will learn that even really annoyed people can still smile, hug and love each other once they work things out.