Parents today are very concerned about empathy, especially when it comes to their children. They not only want their children to be empathetic but they also want others to empathize with their children. This is a wonderful hope and it is one that it is a tough task these days. Reality shows are making it a business for judges to rip contestants apart right in our very homes, and a culture of non-empathy has taken center stage! We can create an opportunity for our pre-American Idol contestants to learn empathy if given the right guidance and time.
Children are born with their own aptitudes and intelligence. Those parts of their personality that are raw talents will need support in order to grow. While some children may have strengths in math, music, language or physical skills others might come with a wonderful sense of empathy or having strong interpersonal skills. Just like natural athletes or leaders, some children really are natural empathize-rs! These children are sometimes lovingly named “old souls” and are often delight adults with their insight and maturity.
For most children empathy just takes time to develop. Its presence fluctuates as we grow and as it is tested. Empathy can appear at different times for different individuals; for some it can be from a life changing moment or experience, as a result of a series of discussions, relating to a character in a book, or travel. For others it can grow from children making connections (both good and bad) such as navigating through friendships, dating, and many types of social situations. In almost all cases it takes hindsight and careful reflection to develop empathy.
It can help when children see their parents and caregivers showing empathy to others, reading and sharing appropriate developmental stories that exemplify empathy, or discussing a character’s actions on a television program. We can help them to think aloud about how they empathize with others, or how we struggle ourselves with empathy and to put empathy into practice through language and action.
I do caution parents not to push and set unrealistic expectations about what children are able to do at appropriate developmental times. Children are learners and they must go through developmental periods and experiences in order to work out and make sense of empathy.
Characters like Tiny Tim in the story “A Christmas Carol” come to mind when I consider how we can perpetuate unrealistic expectations of children and empathy. Tiny Tim is physically challenged, he is poor, his father is tortured by his boss (Scrooge) and is also forced to work on Christmas Eve. Yet, Tiny Tim is not angry or sad but is able to recognize and articulate that Christmas was not about the presents but about family and being kind to each other. I have heard countless questions from parents, hoping to see this type of empathy from their young children (yes a parent wanted to know if their two year old could possess this understanding!). This type of insight about human behavior and the true meaning about what we really need for most children is not reasonable to expect. For most parents my answer is “they are not ready to achieve that level of empathy”. Parents can help to guide children to understanding empathy by allowing them to create a sense a self (this means that the “mine” stage at two years old is okay and developmentally appropriate!). As children grow, we can create opportunities and choose balanced approaches when it comes to giving and taking. Some ways to do this are to:
- Give children realistic choices of when their needs must be met and when it is time to give or understand the needs of others.
- Discuss characters in books and TV shows about how their choices affect others.
- Allow children to understand empathy at their level (they may not verbalize it but can show it or can draw a picture). Do not expect a child to show empathy the way an adult does.
- Give them opportunities to help, especially when there is a crisis situation. Sending a card or picking out a gift to someone who might need it can be just enough to get children thinking about others.
Parents and caregivers should know that empathetic behavior can be fleeting and then return again at another time – In essence, empathy is a practice to wield emotional power and children must be able to work with what they have got and learn to use it in their own time and in their own way.
Today’s entry is a guest post by my good friend and brilliant education consultant, Sara Lise Raff. Sara Lise consults in New York City and also writes helpful advice on her blog, Ask the Educator.
Please share your comments below, and thanks for reading.