What Is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability of a person to understand that other people have their own feelings and to imagine what their feelings might be. In other words, empathy is the ability to think how you would feel in a similar situation. As empathy develops, a person also starts to understand that others may have feelings that are different in kind or intensity from those they themselves might feel in a situation.
Why Is Important For A Child To Have Empathy?
Children with empathy generally do better in school. They handle social situations better and eventually do better in their careers as adults. The community as a whole benefits when most members are able to understand and be considerate of others and their feelings. Psychologists consider empathy a core skill for “pro-social” behavior. Empathy precedes the ability to respond appropriately and to alter behavior that makes others uncomfortable. Teach empathy, then teach the proper responses.
How Does Empathy Develop?
Empathy develops through interactions the child experiences every day. Parents model empathy as they respond to their child, for example, “It must have really hurt when you fell off your scooter.”
Parents also teach and correct their child when he or she does something thoughtlessly, such as pointing at a person with a physical deformity or laughing at someone who stumbled and fell. Simply explain to the child that such a person might feel hurt or lonely because of what happened – then suggest ways to be kind or helpful instead. Let the child know you are counting on them to remember how to behave the next time they are in that situation.
Babies show the beginnings of empathy when they respond to another baby’s cry by crying themselves. Toddlers may offer a toy or a hug to person who is upset. These small beginnings should be nurtured and expanded through discussions within the family, example, “Your sister is feeling sad because she is sick and had to miss her friend’s party.” Normal family and community life offers ample opportunity to discuss empathy in a natural way, in context.
As children get older and start elementary school, parents can go further by explaining that not everyone has the same feelings about a situation. Some people enjoy lighthearted teasing, for example, while others are likely to be hurt. Some people enjoy crowds and noisy excitement, while others prefer a calmer atmosphere. As children get older, they can learn to adjust their own behavior for the benefit of those around them.
How Can Parents Promote Empathy In Their Children
Children who have interactions with animals have been shown to have more self-esteem, empathy, and social skills than children who do not. Nurturing a pet requires children to be aware of that creature’s needs – to empathize with the pet. For example, on a hot day the child will realize that if he is thirsty, the pet must be thirsty as well.
Therapy animals are being used successfully to teach empathy to children with autism. Humane organizations have created programs in which animals are brought into schools or other community gatherings and children are taught proper care and safe behavior around animals. Families without pets can still take children to such programs. They can also volunteer to help at animal shelters and rescues. Even very young children can help deliver donations of pet food, toys, and bedding to a local shelter.
Give children opportunities to meet people of all ages. Visiting older relatives or finding older neighbors to befriend will give the child an opportunity to see how the elderly may see life from a different perspective. Older children might visit a family with a baby and gain an understanding of how parents figure out what their baby needs and respond to those needs. Your faith community, employer, or schools may offer chances to volunteer with nursing centers or retirement homes or to contribute toys to a children’s hospital.
Exposing children to different cultures also expands empathy. Museums and community centers often have programs showcasing a particular cultural group. Even going to an ethnic restaurant can be an opportunity to discuss how people are both alike and different.
Reading is another way to teach children to empathize with people who may not live in your community. Visit the public library to find books about people who have overcome obstacles and discuss with the child how they might feel if they lost their eyesight or hearing, or if they were injured and had to use crutches.