At the holidays, many of us take stock of the blessings in our lives and look for ways to give to those who have less than we do. It is also a time when children are frequently heard saying, “I want…I want…I want,” to more toys and games than fit into most parents’ budgets (and probably into most children’s rooms). Listening to children clamor for “more” can be unsettling for parents diligently striving to instill a sense of empathy and unselfishness into the lives of their children.
Empathy is a learned skill
While unsettling, it is normal for children to focus on themselves. The ability to think about what someone else is feeling and what they might need in any given situation is a learned skill, not something we are born with. Like any skill, it must be developed and practiced if it is going to be an integral part of an individual’s life.
While some of us are born with more innate ability to dribble a basketball, if that skill is to reach its true potential, it needs to be valued and practiced over and over. The same is true of empathy. While some children may have more innate ability to sense what other people are feeling and what they need, all children must be taught and practice these skills in order form them to become woven into the fiber of their character.
Parents play a critical role in the development of empathy.
Your actions are louder than your words
Research shows a child will adopt the values and behaviors the parent lives out and demonstrates over the values and behaviors a parent only talk over with the child. One of the primary ways parents can demonstrate empathy is by empathizing with their children. When a parent shows they truly know their child by understanding and reacting to the child’s emotional needs, being interested and involved in the child’s lives, and respecting the child’s personalities, the child feels valued. When a child feels valued, he or she is more likely to value others. This forms the bedrock upon which other empathetic skills can be built.
In addition to being empathetic to your child, here are ways you can build the skill of empathy within your child’s life:
Provide opportunities for practice
Hold family discussions around topics and challenge each family member to listen and respect other’s perspectives. Ask children about conflicts at school and help them reflect on their classmates’ experiences. Point out situations that call for empathy, and then enter into them. If you or your child sees someone in need, look for ways to help. This can be as simple as opening a door for someone with a bag of groceries. By making it part of everyday life, children begin to integrate it into their definition of what it means to be an adult.
Children are more likely to feel empathy for individuals who are familiar or similar to them. Spend time helping your child identify things he has in common with those who are in distress or need.
Research has shown when we change our facial expression, we change our emotional experience. When talking with a child about how sad someone appears to be, have her make a sad face. Children (and adults) can “boost” their empathetic experiences by imitating the facial expressions of the individual they are attempting to empathize with.
Parents frequently reward behaviors they want children to repeat. However, in the case of empathy this does not appear to be helpful. Studies show that children become less likely to help others if they are given rewards for doing so.
Children with the strongest empathic abilities appear to develop them from learning a set of moral principles that do not rely upon rewards. These principles are developed by helping a child to see WHY something is hurtful or helpful rather than by rewarding and punishing them for their behavior.
Have conversations about how a wrong-doing affects other people and how helping changes the experience of the person who is helped. These conversations, coupled with actively working to make the lives of others better, instills an internal sense that helping others is important.
Make it a family affair
Besides modeling kindness every day, another wonderful way to teach by example is through volunteering together as a family. Get involved in volunteering with your children from a very young age. When you volunteer, choose activities your children can participate in and will enjoy doing. Plan the activities together and talk about them afterwards just like you would a family vacation or other important activity. You may find volunteering becomes a beloved activity children look forward to.
By consistently practicing empathy within your home, you will find your child’s skill improving to the point where they begin initiating empathic activities without prompting. Look for these times and celebrate them. Experiences like these will tell you that you are on the right path!
Jean Holthaus, LISW is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and clinic manager at the Pine Rest Pella Clinic. She earned a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Northern Iowa and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Iowa in 1995.