Empathy, or the ability to understand and share the feelings of other, seems to have become one of the buzzwords of the 21st century. You can not go far on the internet without reading about the importance of empathy in child development. But with a big long list of things you already need to do in this crazy world called parenthood, how much time or thought should any of us actually give to this while we are muddling through just trying to keep our heads above water?
For many of us, empathy may just seem like an abstract word, so I have got my head together with a lovely friend (Katya Bobova*) who also happens to be journalist who specialises in writing about child development issues, to try and break things down in some parenting advice about empathy in the following in-conversation….
Is empathy something that is innate, or is it learnt?
Empathy is an ability to perceive someone’s feelings in a situation and then be able to act in ways that support or soothe the person in that moment.
Most child psychologists believe that empathy is something children acquire with age and that empathy follows a developmental trajectory. However, many small babies are able to express empathy towards others, which in itself is a contradiction to the popular view of empathy’s developmental character.
Why is it important to teach our children empathy?
To be empathetic means to notice what others around us are feeling and to understand their feelings. As we tend to rely on facial expressions, tone of voice, intonation and other non-verbal means to express our emotions, it becomes a difficult task for little children to be able to learn what feelings are and how they are expressed. This understanding is the first step in learning about empathy, it comes with age; and only later children are able to learn the skills to support and help a person in distress.
When children learn to consider the feelings of their parents, their siblings, friends, other children at playgrounds, they become more caring. By learning to care about others we become a more caring society.
From what age should we be teaching empathy?
When a mother coos to her baby, she gives her the first ‘taught’ lesson of empathy. Babies are known to calm down to the soft voice of their mother or the prime carer. It is the familiar voice, the loving expression on mother’s face and the soothing words that the baby learns to respond to from her first days.
Interestingly, small babies are able to show empathy towards others. When a baby cries in a public place, other babies around her often tune into her crying. Child development experts call this developmental mimicry.
What are the repercussions of not teaching empathy?
It is very important that parents show their children that they not only listen to them, but they are able to hear them. When we hear our kids’ concerns, we talk to them about their thoughts and what they experience, we validate their feelings. We ultimately empathise with them. Those children whose feelings are not respected or valued do not learn how to empathise and hence find it difficult later in life to interact with and relate to others. Empathy, thus, enables children to learn the important skills of human interaction and relationships.
How exactly do we teach our children empathy on a practical level? Please could you give us some examples?
Small children learn by modeling others. When you respond with warmth and a caring gesture when your baby is hurt, when you sit down beside her and caress her and talk to her soothingly, she sees that her emotions are important to you, so that next time when her older sister is hurt she will try to repeat the same actions as you did to her.
By the age of 2.5 -3 years most children are able to understand that a family member or a close friend is hurt, however, in their expression of empathy they still lack the adequate responses of, say, children of 5 or 6 years of age. If you grazed your ankle while carrying some garden furniture and your 3-year old has seen you do it, he will most likely rush in to offer you his favourite cuddly bunny in consolation. Accept his offering with grace and praise him for his kindness. In your response you can also add that possibly the bunny remembers when ‘he had grazed his leg recently’ and it was “Ouch! Ouch, so painful”.
Talk about feelings, both yours and your child’s. Give feelings appropriate names, such as ‘hurt’, ‘upset’, ‘angry’, ‘happy’, ‘excited’, ‘lonely’, ‘thrilled’, ‘sad’, ‘on top of the world’, etc.
There seems to be so many things we need to consider these days when parenting, what is your advice for teaching empathy for the time-starved, frazzled parent?
I think one of the best things any parent can do is to be warm to their children. Study after study confirms that those parents who are warm and caring towards their children raise the most considerate and empathetic kids. When children experience love and care in their family from an early age, it buffers them from developing aggressive tendencies in the future (such as bulling, for example).
We all have heard the saying that in order to love others, one needs to love himself/ herself. It cannot be more true for teaching children to be empathetic. When children are positively attached to their parents and to their family, when they feel their love and affection, only then they are able to learn that loving experiences are the building blocks of human relationships.
There has been a lot of discussion in the media about how over-valuing our children may cause them to grow into narcissists. Do you think teaching empathy can help parents who are worried about this?
I think praise is a rather different concept compared with empathy. It is different in the way that the former enables children to acquire confidence and the ability to be resourceful and develop ambitions in the future. However, the two concepts are related in one aspect: by giving praise and by showing empathy to children we validate their actions or emotions, we show them that we relate to them and, ultimately, we care about them. Being cared for and loved is the most desirable feeling for any child.
Do you try to teach your children empathy? Or do you find this just another mind-boggling notion? Please do leave a comment and share your experience…
*A little more about who this in conversation is with:
Katya Bobova is a freelance journalist who specialises in writing about child development issues. In her areas of research she tries to answer one question: Why do child experts change their opinions so often?
Every month parents see yet another new recommendation: advance the age babies are weaned at; change the type of weaning foods you give them; bring the baby into your parental bed and co-sleep with them; praise them profusely, but don’t over-praise them. As a mother of two children she finds this fluctuating nature of recommendations rather confusing and addresses this in her writings.
She has written about toddler and baby nutrition, practices of co-sleeping in different cultures, sibling relations etc. and is a regular contributor to “Baby London” magazine.