It is day 5 of the #blogchatterA2Z challenge and today I will talk about E for Empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and be sensitive to other people’s feelings – to connect with them emotionally, see their point of view and feel someone else’s pain. I believe it is an essential life skill and as parents we should aim to raise kids who genuinely care about others. It is important to develop empathy and compassion in our children because it lays the basis for strong relationships as well as professional success. And if we look beyond ourselves, raising empathetic kids means that we are contributing to a kinder and more compassionate world. Imagine a world where people stop to think about the feelings of others before acting or reacting.
Some children could innately be more compassionate than others but that doesn’t mean that empathy cannot be encouraged and developed in all children. Like all other attributes and skills, this also requires consistent encouragement and nurturing.
Sharing below some tips on building empathy in our children:
- Demonstrate empathy: as for everything else, here also we lead by example. Children observe us carefully and will notice how we interact with them and the larger world. To start with, we need to be empathetic to our children’s feelings. We need to treat them respectfully, understand their individual personalities, taking a genuine interest in their lives and tuning in to their emotional and physical needs. Children who are treated with empathy are also more likely to be more compassionate. Beyond our own children, it is also important that we demonstrate empathy in our interactions with others. The way we treat our house help for instance or how we react if not happy with customer service. In fact, children even hear discussions within the house – so if your discussions include a lot of criticism of others or negativity, that would shape their thinking too.
- Help them develop their emotional vocabulary: it is important that children learn how to process and cope with the entire range of emotions they feel – from good to bad, happy to sad. Unless they understand that there are a range of emotions that one can feel, empathy would be hard to come by. As they grow up, understanding of these feelings can get more nuanced and slowly they will also learn to interpret body language and facial expressions.
- Don’t shield your child from hard truths: there is no need to present a rosy picture of the world to your children. There are always age appropriate ways to explain what is happening in the world. In fact, engaging in discussions about global issues and tragic stories will help our children understand the world from a different perspective and hiding these issues will only imply that these issues are not important and do not need our attention or empathy. For example, I have been telling my son about the spread of coronavirus across the world, as well as the hardships being faced by migrant labour who are stuck during the lockdown.
- Recognize kindness: appreciate kind acts done by your child. If they have helped out someone in need or maybe given away something of their own, praise them. If they took time out to help an elder or offered a hand of friendship to the new kid in town, appreciate them. By doing this we are putting in motion a string of positive behaviours. In the same vein teach them about appreciating others when they receive kindness from them.
- Encourage respectful communication: to begin with, teach children the existence and importance of diverse views as well as having non judgmental discussions. Have discussions about tolerance and respect, about listening honestly and actively and not trying to cut down or snub another point of view. Being open to views, using words mindfully are all becoming more and more critical as our children grow up in an increasingly polarized world but at the same time diverse world. It is a world where virtual communications where words do not necessarily carry the tone of the message are becoming more common than personal interactions.
- Expand the circle of concern: it is of course easy to be concerned about one’s immediate relatives or friends. Beyond that, it is easy to empathise with people that are like you or in a similar situation. However, to be compassionate once needs to go beyond the immediate circle of concern. Exposure to different cultures and different circumstances helps children understand diversity. Can we try and understand those who are different from us? Or struggling in circumstances different from us? Encourage children think about how someone in a disadvantaged position might feel – how about a child who doesn’t have a parent? Or an unpopular or awkward child? Encourage them to reach out.
- Consider volunteering: as much as possible, try and have your child volunteer or get involved. Plan for age appropriate options. But also keep in mind the difference between sympathy and empathy – there is a fine line and empathy means putting yourself in the other’s shoes. Choose volunteering that helps develop empathy and not just sympathy. Donations or feeding children at an orphanage are good deeds but are more sympathetic in nature. Getting children to be involved hands on, experiencing what disadvantaged may feel would help build empathy.
These are a few tips and I would like to end here with thoughts on sympathy vs. empathy. While sympathy implies one cares, empathy involves taking perspectives where one starts to understand thoughts, emotions and needs of others. This skill if learnt well, supports learning how to compromise and resolve conflict.
Read my other blogs on the series here: