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How did you teach your child the concept of empathy?
This is how I’m working on it:
Making sure my children’s needs are met, both physically and emotionally. It’s easier for kids (and adults) to think about others when their own needs are being fulfilled. Besides that, it also teaches them by example what it looks like to be cared for. Modeling is hugely important. By showing them that I am ready, willing, and committed to making sure they’re taken care of, they understand that this is how we show we care about people. They learn how to behave when others are hurting or in need.
This past year, I’ve broken down a few times in front of my kids, and they all, every single one, have reacted in ways that bring me to tears even now just thinking of. My 3-year-old will come and hug me, give me kisses, and pet my hair. My autistic 5-year-old will do silly things to try and make me laugh or bring me his stuffed animals to hold. My sweet 6-year-old comes up and holds onto me tightly and tells me how much he loves me. My 8-year-old will make little wisecracks and tell me that I’m the best mom in the world. Sometimes, I’ll find little notes or drawings left on my bed when they go to their dad’s. They recognize that it hurts me when they’re away, and they try to show their care and love.
Talking To Them About How They Feel
I’m constantly talking to my kids about their feelings and why they feel the way they do. They have been talking with me about cause and effect for years now, and they’re getting really good about figuring out why they feel how they do. We talk about how it feels to be left out, why they’re worried about X or Y not being friends with them, and also their unease and fears about the divorce. Helping them understand their own feelings is a big building block for empathy, because it teaches them about how to think about feelings.
Discussing How Others Feel
I talk to them often about how their actions (or others’ actions) might make other people feel. We have a lot of teaching moments every day, from when they recap their school days to me to when I tell them stories about work or when we see an interaction at the grocery store or schoolyard. They’ve asked me plainly about my feelings throughout the entire divorce, and I’ve been very honest with them (with discretion). It’s been really good to be able to help them understand the emotions, especially when we talk about things like trust and how lying makes people feel. The side benefit is that they’re much better now about not lying (not perfect – still kids!), too. But it’s been really good for me, too, to talk to them about how their father’s affair partner and girlfriend probably feels. It forces me to be empathetic (even when I don’t want to be), and I think (I hope) it’s good for them to see me really trying, too.
Constantly Pointing Out Similarities And Creating Bridges
I make it a point to talk everything out with them. When I get frustrated at an obnoxious driver in front of us, they’ll sometimes ask why I don’t honk or yell (gee, wonder where they see that modeling). I tell them that I try to only honk if it’s to help avoid an accident, and that I try really hard to be patient with people on the road because those people are people too, just like us. I tell them about how sometimes I still get really anxious driving in certain situations, and how much I appreciate drivers who are considerate of me or may let me and my big old van move into a lane when it’s crowded. I tell them how stressed it makes me if someone honks or yells at me. When they frame it that way, it helps them think about it. Having a brother with autism and having been around his sometimes intense meltdowns, my children automatically are much better about helping other kids in meltdowns. Sometimes, they may make a comment about that child being too old to throw a fit, and I remind them that people might think that about Marcus too, but that we know sometimes he can’t help it. We never know for sure what other people’s situations are like, but we have to keep focusing on how we’d want to be treated or want our brothers/sister/mother to be treated.
Helping Them Imagine Themselves In Someone Else’s Situation
Often, we’ll talk about how other people must feel when … and it really helps them. Now, I hear my kids tell me, So-and-so was left out on the playground and was yelling at the other kids, but I knew he probably just felt left out, so I went to play with him. I’m so proud of those moments. Or I’ll hear them say so-and-so had an accident today after lunch, and I think he was really embarrassed, and I told the other kids it wasn’t nice to laugh because it hurts people’s feelings. Sometimes, they just tell me about something that happened where they didn’t directly intervene or respond, and I’ll ask them about how that person must have felt and they can tell me, then, unprompted, will talk about how they want to respond next time. It’s not always fun to be reminded to think of others, but it’s really good for all of us. “Do you remember how it felt when …” is a good conversation starter for these things. Once they remember how they felt and can link it to how others might feel, it really helps them bridge that gap better.
Showing Them The Benefits To Themselves
We’re all humans and at some level, motivated to make life better for ourselves. I talk to my kids about the wide range of empathy and my expectations of them to be kind and respectful because, as my 8-year-old puts it, “That is how we are in Mommy’s family.” And he’s right. Part of what I did after the divorce was have a family meeting with my 4 kids and me, and we talked about what our new family would be like. We decided that our main rules were Be Kind and Respectful. Almost everything else was covered by those 2 things. But I also tell them about the benefits. We talk about how people who are kind and empathetic are nicer to be around. How generally this means they’ll have more friends and better friends. How being this way will help them in school, in life, and in their careers.
Catching Them Doing It Right
I don’t tie empathy or kindness to rewards (or even to punishments beyond a solemn discussion), but I do make sure I call them on it when I see it. When they model it to themselves and each other, just being noticed and praised is a reward in and of itself. I make sure they know how proud I am of them for working at it. Also, sometimes they don’t even realize that they’re employing empathy, so calling it out for them and their siblings helps reinforce the behaviors and make them not just instinctual but conscious at times, too. I think this is good — sometimes in life, we have to call on empathy beyond natural urges. I do this every time I have to talk to my children about their dad and his girlfriend — and I’m glad I do, but it’s hard and not as natural as inspiring empathy in them for a classmate. And I spell it out. I tell them the truth — sometimes it’s hard for me to consider X’s feelings and the struggles she is facing, but it’s the right thing to do, so I work on it. Reinforcing to them that it’s an active thing for everyone, not just children, is helpful. Now, my 6 and 8-year-olds sometimes will call ME on it and tell me that they’re proud of ME for thinking of X.
Discussing How Empathy Can Help Them Control And Focus Their Emotions
We talk a lot together about impulse control and how not to react in anger or retaliation. A big tool for this is telling them to stop, imagine how the other person is feeling, then imagine how the other person will feel if they (my children) go through with whatever it is they wanted to do. Then, imagine someone doing to them or someone else in our family. Like with the road rage example, I show them this in our own lives, too. When someone is rude to us at a store, I keep my calm, and later, tell the kids that I have to imagine that this person is rude because they’re really hurting inside or have been treated badly themselves all day. That when I am really hurting and may not be at my best, I want people to try to be patient with me. It helps — them and me.
Talking About When Things Go Wrong … For Me
I also think a really important part of parenting and empathy is understanding when things go wrong. I’m not perfect. I yell at my kids more than I’d like to. Sometimes, I’m frustrated or tired and I have to literally ask them to give me 15 minutes where I don’t talk to them. I try really hard to explain how I’m feeling. When I yell, I try to go back later, even if it’s much later, like after school if I’ve yelled in the morning on the way out the door, and tell them I’m sorry I yelled and explain what happened. I’ll tell them — I got frustrated because X, Y, or Z, and I lost my temper. I shouldn’t have yelled, because it wasn’t kind or respectful, but I’m human, and I got overwhelmed by my frustration/stress/whatever. This allows them to understand how I might be feeling, and it does, in fact, help them with their own behavior, but also teaches them how to go back with a genuine apology later when *they* lose their tempers. I’m not perfect — really far from it, and owning it and explaining things to them is the best thing I can do to try to help them learn how to curb their own sharp tendencies, too.
All of these things together form a constant conversation and modeling dance that goes on, well, forever. Your kids learn it over time with you and from you, but also from each other and the world at large. Teaching them early to recognize feelings, to react to them, and to learn to put themselves into others’ perspectives is invaluable, and, in my opinion, one of the most critical things parents can teach their children. I like to think that I’m doing okay with this, especially since it’s one of the most important things to me overall, but there’s always room for growth.
Alecia is an accomplished writer who has been published by Forbes, the Huffington Post, Thought Catalog, and more. See more of her Quora posts here: