Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” I am starting this post out like a college essay, but I would like to talk about what I would consider one of the most important, if not the most important, qualities I hope to instill in my kids. I’m not sure that it is something that can even be taught.
I generally try to avoid talking about anything that might imply that I think I have parenting figured out, because I most definitely do not. I have spent a lot of time lately thinking about what really matters, and the values I want to instill in my kids.
Six weeks in quarantine has a way of making you look at your life and the world around you, and the way you are raising your kids.
I always tell my kids that I want to hear from their teachers that they have a kind heart, not that they made the best grades or that they won the race in PE, but that they chose to be kind, especially when it was hard. Do they always do that? No way. But we talk about it a lot.
I think, however, that kindness might not be what we have to strive for. You may not always feel like being kind to the person who is being cruel to another person. You may not love the way someone is acting or the words they are saying. So I am not sure that it is so important that we choose kindness, but maybe instead, that our kids (and we) choose to have empathy for other people.
Think about how powerful empathy can be.
If you have a heart that may not always feel like being kind, but that truly tries to share the feelings of another person, wouldn’t we all come from a much better place with our actions and our words? I’m not sure that we could really hate anyone if we understood and shared their feelings. Not in a superficial way, but that we strive to walk in that persons’ shoes — to know where they are coming from. That we really try to feel what they are feeling, in a deep and meaningful way.
We don’t have to agree with someone or even really like them to be able to step back and think about where their heart is at, where they are coming from, to stop and try to understand and share their feelings. I don’t think that empathy implies at all that you have to agree with someone. It means that you are able to feel what they are feeling. This can be true when it comes to politics, or the playground bully, adults or kids, small incidents or big overarching things like political views.
So this sounds great, but can you teach empathy?
I don’t know; I’m just a dentist and a regular mom, but I am certainly going to try. I am not sure that it is something that either comes naturally or it doesn’t, but it seems like you can try to frame situations that your kids encounter in a way that makes them think about the other person. They are looking to us to explain the world, and I think that if we start early explaining how important it is to feel for other people, that you will at least teach them to take a pause before they speak or act.
Here are some ways you can at least demonstrate empathy to your children:
- Use real life day to day situations. If your kids have an incident with a friend at school that they are interpreting one way, explain where the other person might have been coming from. The person might have had a bad day; the person who seemed grumpy serving them lunch at school might have found out their mom has cancer; the kid who was mean on the playground might have an older brother that picks on him all day and night at home. Teach your kids to stop and step outside of their bubble and think about other people by taking the time to talk about the situation. Kids are naturally stuck in their own universe and, at young ages, it doesn’t always come naturally to think about the other person, so I think it helps to have conversations to introduce the idea that other people have their own complex feelings, insecurities and things they are worried about.
- Serve as an example. If you honk at every driver that cuts you off or bite the head off of the server at a restaurant, your kids probably aren’t going to get a good look at empathy. If the food takes a long time at a restaurant, explain that there are people in the hot kitchen working their butts off and doing the best they can. The person who cut you off on the way to work might have been in a hurry to take their sick child to the doctor. Offer an alternative, a more human side to things rather than rushing to anger. If they see you react this way for the little, day to day things, they will hopefully apply it to the big stuff.
- Don’t give in to every want and need. Kids that are given everything they ask for have a very hard time being empathetic. They can’t understand other people’s hardships, because they have never had any themselves. Don’t let your kids grow up feeling like they can do no wrong, or that the teacher obviously did something wrong if they got a B, or that the umpire took it easy on the other team at the baseball game and that is why they lost. If you create a world for your kids where they are always right, and there is always a reason that they lost or they didn’t get a good grade, or someone else won the award, they will have no room in their heart for empathy. Encourage them, tell them they are doing awesome, but allow them to lose. Let them understand that sometimes other people practiced harder or are stronger at that subject or run faster. The worst thing we can do is tell our kids they are the best and the reason they didn’t win is someone else’s fault. That is the empathy killer.
That is as preachy as I will get. I think that we all try to instill this in our kids in different ways. I just hadn’t really taken the time to put my finger on what exactly I thought was so important for my kids. Kindness is really important. I think though, that empathy is the most important. I hope my kids, as they grow up and navigate through this crazy world, learn to pause before they act or speak, and think about the other person. I hope they don’t just think about themselves, but that they try to understand and share their feelings. I don’t think sharing their feelings means you have to agree with them; I think it means that you try to feel what they are feeling deep in your heart.
If we stop and try to really understand each other in that way, I think the world might look like an entirely different place.