Parenting priorities vary from one family to another. The one thing that we can’t disagree on is the fact that the world needs more empathetic people. But what does empathy really means?
Empathy is the ability to feel for others. Which is different from sympathy. When you feel sympathy, it’s basically when you have compassion for a person who is suffering, but you don’t necessarily understand what they are experiencing. Understanding how other people feel creates better connections which is the first step to eliminate judgments: the root of violence and hatred. A University of Michigan study of nearly 14,000 university students found that students today have about 40% less empathy than college kids had in the 1980s and 1990s.
Dr. Sarah Rasmi, a Dubai-based Canadian psychologist (Ph.D.), who has an extensive experience in education, research, and practice, will explain to us how we can raise kind and empathetic children.
In Denmark, the country that has the happiest people in the world , the national curriculum requires children aged 6 to 16 to dedicate one hour per week to empathy building activities. In your opinion, how does practicing empathy connect to overall happiness?
Empathy enables us to connect with other people, which ultimately makes us happier. The link between social support and happiness was most clearly demonstrated in the Harvard Study of Adult Development. This groundbreaking study tracked people for over 75 years and found that relationships were the number one source of happiness. As a social psychologist, I was really excited by these findings. They underscore what we know about the importance of interpersonal connections: Bonding with others has tremendous benefits for lifelong development and adjustment.
One of the biggest challenges for adults is the inability to understand and verbalize their own emotions. How can we Teach children about emotions from an early age.
Emotional self-regulation is a huge challenge for children as well. We can support our children’s emotional development in a number of ways. We can start by naming their feelings. For example, telling our child, “You seem sad” enables them to link their feeling with the appropriate emotional label. Narrating our own feelings also helps (e.g., “I am so happy to see you!”). We can also use a range of tools to teach our children about their own emotions, as well as how to read other people’s emotions. For example, we can practice reading facial expressions with flashcards. There are lots of great (and free) resources available online. We can also teach children about other people’s emotions using books. Research shows that asking a child to reflect on a character’s feeling is linked to stronger empathy. We can do this by simply asking, “How do you think [character] feels?” and then having a discussion around the feeling, what caused it, and how our child might feel in that situation.
What Can we Do To Nurture Empathy and kindness in Toddlers?
The first thing to note is that toddlers have the capacity to be empathetic and kind. The Baby Lab at Yale University has done some wonderful research on morality in babies and children.
We can encourage our toddlers (and older children) to be more empathetic and kind in a number of ways.
Identify kindness and empathy as family values.
Talk to our children about the importance of kindness and empathy (e.g., “In our family, we are kind”).
Praise our children when they behave in a way that is kind or empathetic (e.g., “Thank you for sharing your toys with Amani. That was so kind of you!”)
Correct our children when they behave in ways that are unkind or not empathetic (e.g., “Hitting is not kind. In our family we are kind. Be gentle with your sister.”)
Model kindness and empathy through your own behavior, narrating it for your children (e.g., “I’m making dinner with Daddy because he needs my help. I’m being kind to him. Kindness is important”)
Create opportunities for our children to practice kindness (e.g., “Can you give this water to the gardener? He’s very thirsty.”) Then, once your child has acted kindly, you can reinforce this behavior through praise (e.g., “Thank you for giving water to the gardener. That was very kind of you.”).
We often focus on teaching our kids to be kind to their family and friends. It’s also important to expand their circle of concern. This means encouraging them to be kind to a wider network of people, including support staff at home, school, and in the wider community.
Children learn best through modeling. What practices can parents engage in to show good examples of empathetic behaviors?
Children learn through what they see, so it’s important for us to set a good example. We need to model kindness towards ourselves, kindness towards others, and kindness towards our children.
The most important thing that we can do as parents is look after our own physical and psychological needs. Practicing self-care gives us an opportunity to rest and recharge, which ultimately makes us better (and calmer parents). Modeling self-care also teaches our children that they should prioritize their own wellness, which is increasingly important in today’s world. I’ve written about this in The National newspaper.
We also need to model kind and empathetic behavior towards others. Children will better understand what kindness and empathy look like when we narrate that behavior and give them opportunities to practice (see above).
Similarly, we teach our children kindness and empathy through how we treat them. It is important for us to really remember what it was like to be a child. Many of the things that frustrate our kids seem insignificant to us – but they’re important to them. Remembering this and emotionally validating their feelings will enable us to avoid conflict and build a stronger and more positive relationship with our kids.
Usually the most common parental reaction when a child does something hurtful is to push the child to apologize. Saying ‘Sorry’ without empathizing with the person they hurt doesn’t teach them anything positive. How should these situations be handled ?
How you handle these situations will depend on the specific circumstances and age of the child. Generally speaking, it is important that we encourage our children to apologize when they have deliberately hurt someone (physically and/or emotionally). This is because apologies make people feel better. Research shows that young kids can’t tell the difference between a genuine apology and a forced one. This means that encouraging your child to apologize – even if they don’t really want to – will still have benefits for the other child. To me, that is important.
That being said, I don’t believe in forcing apologies. I think that the most important thing is to tell our kids when they should be apologizing. We need to correct their behavior, tying it back to the values. For example, “Pushing is not nice. You hurt Layla and now she is sad. In our family, we are kind. You need to say sorry and be more gentle.” is an effective way to communicate what your child did wrong, how it affected the other child, and what your child can do better next time. At this point, I would encourage them to say sorry but then let it go if need be (especially with a toddler or young child). Repetition makes it easier for our children will understand what is acceptable versus unacceptable behavior.
Finally, what kind of stories can we read our children to help teach empathy?
There are a number of specific books that we can use to promote empathy in our children. We like Elizabeth Verdick’s books, including Words Are Not For Hurting, Voices Are Not For Yelling, and Teeth Are Not For Biting. You can find other suggestions on the Common Sense Media page.
You can also teach your children empathy through any of the books in your library. Simply read the story and ask them to reflect on how the characters might be feeling. You can teach them how to read emotional expressions by noting that smiling characters are happy, whereas frowning characters might be angry, and crying characters might be sad or scared. As noted above, it is especially important to ask them follow-up questions. Getting our children to perspective-take while reading is linked to increased empathy.