25 Oct Especially for Parents: Cultivating empathy in your child
The Harvard Graduate School of Education has an initiative called Making Caring Common. The project is gathering information about strategies for promoting empathy. The premise is that empathy is extremely important for school, professional and life success. “Empathy is at the heart of what it means to be human.”
This topic may seem a bit heavy for our roles as adults working with young children, but in reading the research it is apparent that children are learning about empathy at a very young age. Empathy begins with the capacity to take another perspective, to walk in another’s shoes. But empathy also includes valuing other perspectives and people. It’s about having compassion.
“Children learn about empathy both from watching us and from experiencing our empathy for them. When we empathize with our children they develop trusting, secure attachments with us. Those attachments are key to their wanting to adopt our values and to model our behavior, and therefore to building their empathy for others.”
In addition to experiencing how we tune in to them as individuals, children also learn empathy by watching how we interact with others. They notice how we treat a server in a restaurant. Do we treat them as if they are invisible, or do we interact in a friendly, respectful way? If a new family moves into the neighborhood, do we reach out to make them feel welcome? Does your child observe you caring for others?
Do you help your child understand that the world doesn’t revolve around him/her? This can be done in simple ways – insisting at times that children turn off the T.V. and help around the house, being polite even when they are in a bad mood, or listening to others at the dinner table instead of allowing them to dominate the entire conversation.
An interesting perspective for me was learning that when children don’t express empathy, it’s not because they don’t have it. It’s because some feeling or image is blocking their empathy. Often the ability to care for others is overwhelmed, for example, by anger, shame, envy, or other negative feelings. Helping children manage these negative feelings as well as stereotypes and prejudices about others is often what “releases” their empathy.
So, as the holidays approach and young children often become focused on their own wishes and experiences, it’s a good time to explain how empathy and compassion for others are gifts that we all can easily give. Talk about how your child can comfort a child who is sad. Or maybe your family can provide support for a family in need. Let your child become a part of the process and claim the theme Making Caring Common as a part of your family’s values.