Why Teach Empathy?
I recently participated in a writing challenge called NAPIBOWRIWEE, or National Picture Book Writing Week.” During this event, participants are challenged to write one picture book a day for seven days. On each day of the challenge, there is an inspirational blogpost with guest authors, illustrators, editors, or agents. The first blog for this year was a Q&A session with Lee & Low Books Editor, Jessica Echeverria who shared (among many other insightful remarks) the following statement: “I think one of the most important things to teach children is empathy.” (She was referencing the Newbery Award-winning picture book, Last Stop on Market Street, the first picture book to win the Newbery medal in over 35 years, by the way.)
This statement struck a chord with me, not just as a writer, but also as a parent. I agree with Jessica; teaching our children empathy is (to quote Donald Trump) HUUUGE! Empathy, or the ability to understand the thoughts or feelings of another, helps us live more fulfilling, happier lives. According to Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., and coauthor of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential — and Endangered, “Empathy is probably the greatest single gift of our species. We wouldn’t have been able to survive without creating relationships and groups that could function together.”
The greatest single gift of our species…. Wow! Good thing I’m such a compassionate, empathetic parent. I can rest assured that my children know all about empathy…right? Hang on–have I actually been teaching my children empathy, or have I just been assuming they will learn from my example? True, modeling positive behaviors is crucial when it comes to teaching compassion (or anything else, for that matter) but what else can a well-meaning parent do to kick up the kindness?
One thing we can do is to acknowledge our children’s efforts to be empathetic. Perhaps you just saw little Billy attempting to soothe an upset friend. (Granted, he was going about it by offering a snuggle with Slinky the pet snake… but hey, he was trying.) A quick “that was thoughtful of you” is enough. You don’t want to overdo it. Praise for every little act of courtesy can actually have the opposite effect by refocusing the attention back to “all about me-ness.”
If you never put your phone down to say ‘hello’ to the store clerk, or you’re rude to the busy barista who messed up your coffee– yes–your child will notice. Instead, use these moments as opportunities to talk about how others might feel in certain situations. Honestly, you may find it helps improve your outlook as well.
Apologize when Appropriate
Nobody’s perfect. We all experience moments of empathy-deficit-disorder. Forgive yourself and let your children see you work through negative feelings. Encourage conversations about anger, frustration, jealousy, and all those very human but less-than-empathetic emotions. And don’t be afraid to apologize for your slip-ups in front of your children.
Move Empathy up the Priority List
I often catch myself thinking and saying, “My children’s happiness is the most important thing.” But studies show that a strong focus on ‘being happy’ doesn’t actually increase children’s happiness. According to this Harvard Report, “Parents who don’t prioritize their children caring for others can deprive them of the chance to develop fundamental relationship skills, and strong relationships are one of our most vital and durable sources of well-being.” In other words, the best way to happiness is through kindness toward others. Try prioritizing empathy and compassion toward others, and help your child understand that she is not the only person on this planet.
Practice Makes Perfect
Like any other skill, empathy takes practice and the family environment is chock-full of challenges. So practice by listening to each other. Talk about one another’s feelings and try to understand what an experience is like from someone else’s point of view. Give children the language to talk about their feelings, and not just happy and sad, but jealous, concerned, annoyed, surprised, etc. Practice kindness and empathy, and help your children do the same. Make it a study of compassion, after all…
“The study of love and its utilization will lead us to the source from which it springs, The Child.” ~Maria Montessori