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Empathy in 3 steps (or less)

Categories: Fighting the Stereotype

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A dear friend of mine stopped by last night for dinner, his vibrant two year old daughter in tow. It’s been awhile since I’ve had a toddler in the house, and I cannot get enough of this little one’s stubbornness and enthusiasm and spontaneous, full-body hugs. There’s nothing quite like the feeling you get when a child bounds across a room and throws herself into your arms. Perfection.

As his little one bounced around the living room, he and I discussed a question he had recently posed on his Facebook page: How can you teach empathy to your kids?

Empathy seems to be the new buzz word these days, and for good reason. Recent studies show a dramatic decrease in young people who identify themselves as empathic, and the rash of bully-related suicides in the last several years has many parents wringing their hands with worry. None of us want our child to be the target of another’s cruelty, and none of us want our child to become the one who is cruel. But do we really have control over how much our children care about, and with, others? Maia Szalavitz, co-author of Born For Love, thinks so.

We all have the natural capacity (in the absence of some brain disorders) for empathy,” Szalavitz says. “However, like language, empathy requires particular experiences to promote learning.”

The trick? Practice. Similar to language, children come predisposed for the capacity to empathize with other humans. And just like language, empathy can be quickly learned and strengthened when it is modeled and practiced at home with the child’s very first teachers- her parents.

Here are the ways I practice empathy at home with my children.

1. Feel out loud
One of the most important skills I can give my children is the vocabulary to discuss their own, and others’, feelings and experiences. I do this by giving voice to my own emotions on a regular basis. “I was so sad when I found out my friend is moving to another city.” “I’m having trouble figuring something out for work and I feel really frustrated.” “I missed you while you were at Dad’s. I am so happy to see you again.”

These sentences may seem bland- and out of context, even a little contrived- but when our day-to-day conversation is peppered with statements like these my children learn how to understand the feelings that bubble up during the day. And they learn that our home is a safe and welcoming environment for talking about how we feel.

2. Never judge an emotion
We make it a rule in our house never to judge or punish an emotion. If my daughter tells me she’s feeling upset, she gets to have that. It’s hers, and I respect that feeling. What matters to me is how she treats others when she feels that way. When they were little I would say things like, “You feel angry, and that’s OK. It’s not OK to hit your sister.”

3. Practice perspective-taking
Being able to put oneself in another person’s shoes is the most important building block for empathy. Sympathy is feeling for another person. Empathy is feeling with. Understanding what someone is experiencing helps turn sympathy into empathy.

We practice this in a number of ways. The most common is through discussion (”What do you think that was like for her?”), but it can also be a game (”Imagine you are the bus driver and all of the kids on the bus are yelling and bouncing in their seats. How would you feel? What would you do?”). They are used to these questions by now, and are ready to jump right in with an answer. Every time they think about what another person is experiencing, their ability to empathize becomes stronger.

The most important thing to remember is that even if you do nothing more than demonstrate your own empathy, your children will benefit. As Roots of Empathy founder Mary Gordon says, “Empathy can’t be taught, but it can be caught.”

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