by Michele Borba
REALITY CHECK: Empathy is the moral virtue that helps children “identify with and feel other people’s concerns.” When they do, they are more likely to reach out and respond in more caring, compassionate ways to others. Unlike genetics or appearance or most temperaments, empathy can be cultivated, and research shows that infants are already hard-wired. The best way to nurture empathy is for children to witness or experience it.
So now review the last few days: What has your child done or seen that would stretch — or shrink — his or her empathy growth?
The Power of Experiencing and Witnessing Empathy
Several years ago, our youngest son brought home a note from his teacher asking for parent volunteers to chaperone a class field trip. His teacher, Cindy Hollinger, was encouraging her students to give up their Saturday morning to participate in a race called “Lauren’s Run” sponsored by the City of Hope. The event was held in the memory of Lauren Zagoria, a three-year old child who died from cancer. Her parents, Janis and Marvin Zagoria, founded the event in her memory and honor and were committed to finding the cure for the disease that took their beautiful child from them.
Our local event was held on a large open field. Each racer would pay an entrance fee of a few dollars, and all the profits would go to pediatric cancer research. Volunteering to drive to that event was one of the easiest decisions I’ve made.
As we drove into the parking lot, each child was met by an adult volunteer who thanked them for taking time to help children with cancer get better. I watched children’s faces brighten as they recognized their efforts were appreciated and respected.
“Hey, maybe this is going to be more fun than we thought!” I heard them say.
The race was held and the children ran, trophies were awarded, a beautiful brunch was served, and all the children were thanked again for their time. Listening to my young passengers’ conversation on the drive home was the greatest affirmation on why adults should encourage kids to serve others.
“It was fun,” they said. “Those adults really appreciated us.”
“It was fun because we helped Lauren,” said one boy.
Another child expressed everyone’s sentiments, “Maybe now other kids won’t have to feel so sad and hurt so much.”
Before they arrived back home, they’d all pledged to run again next year, and they did.
Those children exemplified what it means to have empathy. That day, they were able to put themselves in Lauren’s shoes and imagine how she felt. That day, the students ran not for themselves, but to help Lauren. And, that day they won the best kind of victory: the triumph of knowing that their caring actions can make a difference. Sigh!
Participating in Lauren’s Run gave the kids the opportunity to “know goodness, feel goodness, and do goodness.” Because those children had a real and meaningful opportunity to experience and witness empathy, they are also more likely to see themselves as people of goodness who can do good and so they will also be more likely to look for acts of goodness again, and again, and again.
Ah, the power of empathy! Opening up a child’s heart mobilizes compassion. It’s a surprisingly simple technique that is too often over-looked in our quest to raise good kids. You don’t learn empathy from a worksheet but from real and meaningful experiences. And oh, how I wished more children could have shared the experience!
Helping our children appreciate other people’s feelings and needs cannot be taught in a few short lessons. Your child gradually moves from his egocentric “always thinking about me” perspective to one in which he not only cares about the other person, but can feel and understand the other person’s point of view. And you can help stretch that growth. Research tells us empathy is a trait we can develop in our kids.
Keep this in mind: the best way kids learn empathy is by witnessing or experiencing it.
Look for those meaningful, everyday opportunities to help your child understand the glory of humanity.
Find those goodness-building experiences like Lauren’s Run or volunteering for your child to participate. (Hint: best volunteering experiences capture the child’s natural interests and strengths!)
Try also to participate in those experiences with your child. Those events become not only golden memories, but rich conversations between the two of you.
Simple Secrets to Develop Our Kids’ Caring Hearts
- Point Out Other People’s Feelings
Pointing out the facial expressions, posture and mannerisms of people in different emotional states as well as their predicaments is beneficial: it helps your child tune into other people’s feelings. Once your child understands how the other person feels (she looks sad), he’ll be more likely to not only feel for that child but also be activated to do something to help.
- Stress that “helping” is part of your family values.
Do emphasize that you expect your child to help and encourage those caring efforts.
As occasions arise, explain your concern and what clues helped you make your feeling assessment: “Did you notice Sally’s face when you were playing today? I was concerned because she seemed worried about something. Maybe you should talk to her to see if she’s okay.”
- Watch a television show without the sound and predict how the characters are feeling.
It helps the child understand that emotion identification is comprised of facial expressions and body language.
- Find children’s literature or magazines that have glorious photos of emotions.
Help your child create feeling charts and collages.
- Talk about feelings in your own family.
“How does Dad look? Do you think now is the best time to ask him for an increase in your allowance?”
- Point out your own child’s feelings.
“You look upset. I can tell because you have your hands in a fist and your back in crunched over. Want to talk?”
Switch roles to feel the other side.
Michael was a student of mine who had difficulty understanding anyone else’s feelings but his own. One day he hurt another student’s feelings with his teasing, but I just couldn’t get him to understand how sad he’d made the other child. I spotted a wire hanger on the floor, quickly bent it into a large circle shape and improvised, “Michael, stick your head through the hole and pretend you’re Stevie and feel just like Stevie feels. I’ll be Michael.”
I started the role play: “Stevie, your haircut makes you look dumb. How do you feel, Stevie?”
By making Michael switch places and pretend to be Stevie he finally understood Stevie’s hurt. I used a wire hanger as a prop for Michael to use in role playing the other child’s point of view but there are other ideas:
You can help your younger child act out the other person’s perspective using puppets, dolls, or even toy action figures.
As kids get older you can just ask, “Switch places and take the other person’s side. How would you feel if you were in her place?” Just make sure you ask that question again and again!
You can also have your child actually sit in your seat (”Sit here a minute, honey. I’ve been sitting here for the last two hours waiting for you to come home. Sit here to help you understand how you think I was feeling.”)
- Imagine someone’s feelings.
One way to help your child connect with the feelings of others is to have her imagine how the other person feels about a special situation.
Suppose your child just wrote a get well card to her grandma. Use the moment to help her recognize her grandmother’s reaction when she receives the card by pretending she’s the other person. “Imagine your Grandma right now. You walk to the mailbox, and when you open it you find this letter. How will you feel?”
You later can expand the imagination game to include people your child has not personally met: “Imagine you’re a new student, and you’re walking into a brand new school and don’t know anyone. How will you feel?”
Asking often, “How would you feel?” helps kids understand the feelings and needs of other people.
Create a Goodness Legacy for Your Child
Today more than ever, as our kids are often exposed to an unsettling world of violence, bullying and insensitivity, we must emphasize empathy. I’m convinced that understanding how someone else feels may well be the antidote that will help our children live in a more tolerant world.
The best news is empathy can be cultivated. What better legacy to give your child: the gift of a strong and caring heart that you have helped to nurture? It’s a gift that will keep on giving—your children will pass on to their children – and to theirs, and you’ve touched their future world.
After all, you are your child’s most influential moral teacher, so use your influence wisely. Be the moral, caring example you want your child to copy.Let your child experience and witness empathy from you!
Don't miss Michele Borba's keynote presentation at the 2016 National Forum on Character Education!