Updated: Mar 18, 2020
This time of year, parents everywhere are dressing their little ones up in their best back to school outfits, with a backpack loaded with brand new supplies and a message of positivity about all the great things this school year will bring. In short, as parents we try our best to send our children out into the world as prepared as possible. Our preparations typically begin on the outside, with clothes, shoes, haircuts, and school supplies but what preparations can we make on the inside to really help them thrive?
For me, this time of year has always been full of excitement and I try to send my children off with the same energy. I want them to be excited about learning new things, developing new friendships and continuing to discover their own path. But above all, I strive to instill a sense of compassion and kindness in my children. Growing up, I learned quickly about the mentality of “mean girls” and I vowed early on that I would never raise a mean girl. While most research suggests that there is about a 50/50 balance between nature, what they are born with, and nurture, experience and environment, I was determined to send my girls out into this world with a healthy sense of rightness, compassion and kindness. For many, this means developing a strong sense of Empathy.
What does it mean to have Empathy?
Empathy is our ability to go beyond simply caring for another individual, but to really feel what they are feeling. Now, this concept can seem daunting, how can I truly know how another person is feeling, and this is a very valid concern. But by approaching your friend with openness and curiosity about their feelings, you are providing them an opportunity to invite you in. You are letting them know, I hear what you are saying, and I can use my own personal experiences to help me understand how you are feeling. While you have never walked in another’s shoes, I am sure that we can all relate to feelings of sadness, loneliness inadequacy, anger or even joy, elation and excitement.
Why is Empathy Important?
I believe people have an innate need to feel understood and to have their feelings validated. By offering another Empathy, you are sending them a message that they matter, that their feelings matter and above all, that they are not alone. By learning at a young age how to be Empathetic, we are preparing the next generation to be stronger, more attuned to the needs of others, and more likely to find similarities between individuals where previous generations saw only difference. My hope is that our children learn to find the beauty and strength in our country’s diversity but to also remember the truth of our similarity at heart.
How can we teach our children to be Empathetic?
For some, a sense of Empathy comes almost naturally, like a child who seeks to comfort without prompting, but for others, a little more work is required. The three words that I think will help are Model, Practice, Master. We are our children’s first teachers. They learn what are acceptable behaviors from an early age through the values we instill but also through the behaviors that we model. Telling our children to be kind is not enough, we must also find daily opportunities to pass on kindness. Small gestures go a long way to making people feel special and cared for. By learning how to be an empathetic listener for your children, you are also teaching them how good it feels to have another offer you empathy and the power of passing that feeling on to another.
Practice can come in many forms for both you and your child. In many ways the work you do with your children will help reinforce what you may already know about Empathy. The age old saying, “treat others how you want to be treated” applies here as it does in so many other ways. If you want to be understood, try to extend understanding to another. Get comfortable with your feeling words. By choosing to express your emption through a simple I-Statement, “I Feel Sad”, I Feel Angry”, you are offering your child the opportunity to pick that feeling up and relate to you. Lastly, use your children’s favorite toys to help practice empathy. This can be especially helpful if you are also hoping to get your child to talk more about their own emotions. For example, I might ask, “How is Teddy feeling today, he looks a little down”. I might even follow that up with an open question like “Why is Teddy down today or What ways can we help cheer him up”? The expression and reception of feelings is an integral part of learning Empathy and is something that should be practiced daily.
Is Empathy something we can truly master?
I don’t want to seem disingenuous by suggesting there is a concrete point of mastery or even a destination we are seeking to reach. However, as a parent we understand that we need to celebrate the small victories and offer positive reinforcement of goals achieved. Positive Reinforcement can help build motivation and tenacity as you move through the process of developing Empathetic understanding. Remember to encourage your children to put their “mastered” skill into use every day in school, at home or where ever they can use their superpower.