Empathy: Why and How
We all know what empathy is…empathy is at the heart of what it means to be human. It’s a foundation for acting ethically, for good relationships of many kinds, for loving well, and for professional success. Empathy begins with the capability of being able to ,as they say, walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. But to take it a step further it is the capacity to value other people and perspectives.
As parents and educators we are the prime role models to nurture empathy in our children. Raising empathetic kids might seem like a challenging task along with everything else, but kids are naturally empathetic. They are affected by other people’s feelings and are driven to respond. Learning how to support the development of those feelings in healthy directions is another of the tasks of raising a child. And there’s plenty of research to support this idea.
Emotional intelligence has become an increasingly popular idea over the last twenty years. While “IQ” (intelligence quotient) attempts to describe our thinking and reasoning abilities, “EQ” (emotional intelligence quotient) attempts to describe our ability to work with our own and others’ emotions. (Salovey & Pizarro, 2002).
One of the most important of the emotional intelligence skills is empathy. When we instinctively tell our kids to “think about how what you did made someone feel,” we are training our kids in empathy and inviting them to recognize the importance of taking others’ feelings into account.
So, what are some ways to help support our kids’ development of empathy, and the ability to respond to others in constructive ways? Here are a few points from Harvard’s Making Caring Common project to consider:
1. Empathize with your child and model empathy for others
Children learn empathy both from watching us and from experiencing our empathy for them. When we empathize with our children they develop trusting, secure attachments with us. Those attachments are key to their wanting to adopt our values and to model our behavior, and therefore to building their empathy for others.
2. Make caring for others a priority and set high ethical expectations
If children are to value others’ perspectives and show compassion for them, it’s very important that they hear from their parents that caring about others is a top priority, and that it is just as important as their own happiness
3. Provide opportunities for children to practice empathy
Encourage children not just to do service, to “do for” others, but to “do with” others, working with diverse groups of students to respond to problems.
4. Expand your child’s circle of concern
Emphasize with your child the importance of really listening to others, especially those people who may seem unfamiliar whom they don’t immediately understand.
5. Help children develop self-control and manage feelings effectively
A simple way to help children to manage their feelings is to practice three easy steps together: stop, take a deep breath through the nose and exhale through the mouth, and count to five. Try it when your children are calm. Then, when you see them getting upset, remind them about the steps and do them together.
At Wonders we are bringing empathy learning to our early learning classrooms adapting Dr. Becky Bailey’s Baby Doll Circle Time program. It’s based around the research that says that when young children care for and play with dolls in the same ways as they have been cared for by adults (ie. same nursery rhymes, same gentle hugs) the children’s brains partially re-experience the connections they felt when they did these routines and rituals with their actual caregivers. These connections help build “emotional attunement” — teachers being attuned to the children and children being attuned to each other. Which in turn build the foundations to developing empathy conscious behaviors.