By Marcia Hall
Few emotions in life are more difficult to teach a child than empathy. It is a confusing, complicated and mature emotion that even most adults have yet to master. However, teaching a child empathy can have lasting effects on her as she grows up. Empathy is a valuable tool to possess and can help a child cooperate with others in school and in life. It can help her grow to be a compassionate and kind person.
Show empathy to your child and others. This is always the first step you should take when teaching your child anything. She cannot learn empathy unless someone first works to understand her point of view. Showing your child empathy means that you consider her emotions and opinions when making any decisions about her. It means that you talk to her like you would like her to talk to you, not just when you are happy with her, but also when you are upset. It means that you attempt to understand why she is acting the way she is acting before you react with a punishment. This does not mean that you do not discipline your child, but that you do so with great love and respect.
Ask your child to tell you what emotions she sees in others. One of the best ways to help your child understand and practice empathy is to frequently ask her how she thinks someone else feels. “Do you see that girl crying over there? How do you think she feels? Why do you think she might feel that way?” When your child is young, she may have a hard time expressing the emotions she sees with words, and will have even more trouble coming up with a reason why. You can help her find the words little by little to label these emotions. After a while, she will get very good at defining the emotions she sees in others.
Ask your child if she wants to help when she sees someone hurting. After she begins to get good at defining the emotion, you can ask her, when appropriate, if she would like to try to find a way to help the other child or person. This can be tricky for a few reasons. Not every person having difficulty wants help, and parents might worry about putting their child in a dangerous situation. Use your best parenting judgment, but remember that as adults we sometimes have to step out of our comfort zone to help others if we want our children to be the kind of empathetic person that would do the same.
Don’t require your child to apologize when she commits an offense. It can be very tempting and socially acceptable to tell your child she needs to apologize to someone she has hurt or offended. Parents generally think this is one way to teach empathy. The truth is that it has the opposite effect on teaching empathy. Making a child say “sorry” to another child, when she in fact is not sorry, is actually a lie! When you demand that your child says “sorry” it only teaches her that she can do anything she wants if she follows it up with an apology. It does not teach why she should say sorry or help her understand the other person’s emotions
Work with your child to reconnect relationships after someone has been hurt. Instead of requiring your child to apologize after an offense, try helping your child understand why the other child might be hurt. This is another great time to ask your child what emotion she sees in the other child. “Why do you think Jessica is crying? Oh, because you hit her. Yes, people don’t like to be hit. I would feel sad too if someone hit me. Would you? What are some ways you think Jessica might feel better? Yes, she might feel better if you talked with her…” If your child comes up with the idea to say “sorry” then that is great, but remember that “sorry” is just a word. If you truly want to teach empathy, you need to help her go beyond just the words to the actions. Repairing a relationship is more about making right what was wronged. If a child hits another child, sometimes a hug can help. If a child knocks down something someone else was building, it can help for your child to help fix it. The point is that there is more to apologizing than saying “sorry.”
If she is unwilling to apologize, make the apology for her. Empathy is not fully developed until age eight or older, so a child under that age may not have the emotional ability to be “sorry,” therefore she might be unwilling to help heal the relationship. If your child is able to come up with a way to make the relationship better, but is unwilling to take action and do so, you can take that action for her. Make the apology, build the block or fix the broken toy for your child. This will model compassion and empathy for her and she might be more willing to join in because you’re doing it. She will see that it is not that hard to make a wronged relationship better.
Learning empathy is a life long journey, but with a good solid foundation in childhood your child will grow to see situations from other people’s points of view.