“When educating the minds of our youth, we must not forget to educate their hearts.”—Dalai Lama
Golden Rule revised: “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.”—David Daniels, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and Enneagram teacher
Empathy is the ability to view other people’s situations from their perspective, to place yourself in their shoes, to have a sense of what they are feeling, and to understand why they feel and act the way they do. Empathy is considered one of the most influential components of emotional intelligence. It is the underlying base for relating to others with courtesy and respect, and it is a necessary skill for getting along with others.
Empathy is a precursor to pro-social behavior, defined as actions that benefit another person without an expected reward for oneself. Children who engage in pro-social behavior are more compassionate, generally perform better in academics, make friends more easily, and have higher self-esteem than other children. They also are able to form higher-quality and longer- lasting relationships. These benefits remain with the child throughout adolescence and adulthood.
Empathy involves three component skills:
- A sense of self-awareness and the ability to distinguish one’s own feelings from the feelings of another
- The acknowledgment and understanding of another person’s perspective
- The ability to regulate one’s own emotional responses
Although empathy has some biological components, it is developed mostly through experiences. These experiences begin in infancy, when you, his primary caregiver, empathize with him. You show him that you understand him by being responsive, emotionally supportive, and compassionate about his feelings.
That attunement creates an attachment, a dependency, and eventually a two-way street of empathy between you and your baby. You are his role model and his first experience with empathy. As he feels your empathy for him, he is likely to mirror this feeling and, eventually, to imitate it when interacting with others.
The fundamentals of empathy are awareness of your emotions and the ability to self-regulate. As your child grows, help him identify and understand his emotions, so that later he can recognize and understand them in others. For example, if he is fussy and refuses a nap, you can explain that he may feel irritable and upset because he is tired. As he matures, your child’s experiences, including ups and downs, pains and pleasures, will increase his understanding of other people and further shape his capacity for empathy.
Below are several parenting strategies that you can incorporate into your daily interactions with your child to foster empathy. As he develops, his level of understanding will become more complex.
- Address your child’s needs, and help him learn to regulate his emotional responses.
- Respectfully respond to your child’s cues with meaningful feelings, thoughts, and intentions.
- Give your child physical affection and pleasant social interactions, which boost oxytocin levels and promote bonding.
- Limit your child’s exposure to violent media, which desensitizes children’s reaction to others’ suffering.
- Model empathy and compassion. Empathic parenting produces empathic children.
- Promote a moral system that depends on intrinsic value systems, rather than rewards or punishments.
- Encourage your child to explore other perspectives by stepping into another person’s shoes.
- Promote sharing because it helps a child understand another person’s perspective. Ask, “How do you think Max would feel if you shared your new toy with him?”
- As you read books to your child, draw attention to the different characters’ points of view. For example, ask, “How do you think he feels now?”
- Help your child discover similarities with people he may perceive as different. Some examples of diversity are people from other races, religions, or socioeconomic backgrounds, or people with physical or mental disabilities.
- Use role reversal as a way to prompt your child’s understanding of another’s feelings. Ask, “How would you feel if you were in this situation?”
Empathy often leads to compassion—the desire to take action to alleviate another person’s pain—although feeling another person’s pain is not a prerequisite to a compassionate act. The word compassion comes from the Latin word meaning “cosuffering,” and compassion is usually related to suffering. Compassion is a thought (“there are other people in this world”), plus an emotion (“I feel for others, and others feel for me”), plus an action (“I am going to do this to help others”).
As with empathy, your child is born with a tendency toward compassion. Starting at a young age, he moves to soothe you, his siblings, and his friends when they are distressed. However, he must hone this natural tendency through experience and through your modeling.
Acceptance and understanding without judgment or criticism are basic to developing compassion. Your child benefits when he witnesses you accepting yourself, as well as others. If you are inwardly or outwardly critical of yourself or others, then your child learns to be critical, too. When you are compassionate and understanding toward yourself and others, he learns to follow suit.
When you encourage your child to be empathic and compassionate, you are investing in making the world a better place and helping him to develop meaningful relationships that nurture his happiness.
Because Western culture places great emphasis on independence, self-reliance, and self-first thinking, you may have to battle cultural ideals in order to teach your child compassion. In their early years, children need parents and caregivers who consciously nurture their ability to care about others and to act with kindness. When you encourage your child to be empathic and compassionate, you are investing in making the world a better place and helping him to develop meaningful relationships that nurture his happiness.