Originally Published October, 2017
I will never forget Daniel’s face that day. His wide eyes and earnest expression. The flush in his cheeks and freckled nose from running all the way to the office. His singular determination and belief that he was about to change the world.
I will never forget the sound of eighteen dollars and forty three cents worth of change landing on my desk with a clinking sort of thud .
“This is for the people in that really poor country. Where the earthquake was.”
It was 2010. Daniel was in First Grade. He had just handed over his life savings to try to heal Haiti.
ARE KIDS EMPATHIC?
Don’t ever let anyone tell you that kids don’t care. Are they always empathic? Of course not. Are they sometimes selfish? Sure. But on the whole, kids care. In fact, kids care a lot. Amidst the cornucopia of BIG emotions that children experience every day, empathy is certainly present.
Where does empathy come from? Is it linked to a person’s nature or is it nurtured? Numerous studies been devoted to these questions, and to determining whether empathy is an innate trait present in all humans or a learned behavior that must be acquired over time; evidence has been found to support both arguments. Researchers have been able to identify evidence of empathic behavioral responses in children as young as the infant stage. Yet there is no question that some children (and some adults, for that matter) are more empathic than others. So how can we, as parents and educators, nurture more empathic children? The answer seems to lie in how natural feelings of empathy are nurtured and developed throughout the various stages of a child’s development.
MAKE IT MATTER
Most parents and teachers, if ask ed, would say that empathy matters, that they want their children to be thoughtful, kind, caring, and compassionate. Most would say that they do their best to instill positive values daily in order to help children to be more empathic. Unfortunately, there is no perfect recipe for creating the perfectly empathic child (if such a thing exists). Thankfully, there are key ingredients that can help to increase empathy in children.
Perhaps one of the best ways to cultivate empathic children is by making empathy important, both in our schools and in our homes. We can do so by talking about it, by expecting it, by practicing it daily, and by celebrating it as it happens. We have to make it matter.
If it does matter to us that our children are empathic, then it’s up to us to show them what empathy looks like.
My grandmother passed away a year ago and with her went half of the world’s supply of empathy–or it would have had her example not inspired (or maybe shamed) everyone who knew her to endeavor to find an extra measure of empathy within themselves. Was she perfect? No. But she was kind and loving and generous of spirit. She never turned her back on a person in need, always did her best to try to see things from the other person’s perspective, and ALWAYS practiced as well as preached the old, “If you don’t have anything nice to say about someone, don’t say anything at all.”
As a child, this unwavering empathy was often irksome to me: “Why does she always have to be so NICE. Why can’t she just take my side? I’m obviously right. I mean, maybe she has a point… but still!”
In time I would realize that what was actually irking me in those moments was the realization that I may not have been as right as I thought, and that I probably could and should have behaved differently, been more empathic. What my grandmother gave me was better than being right. She taught me that empathy matters and she showed me, every day, just how it was done.
Our children should see us always endeavoring to understand and share the feelings of others as well as helping those in need whenever we are able. They should also feel our empathy for them, both during the good times and the not so good times. This isn’t always easy. It means moving in rather than stepping back when our children are having those BIG emotions that often come at really inconvenient times. It doesn’t mean that they will always get their way, but they should always know that their feelings matter to us, that we are listening and trying to understand, even if the end result doesn’t change. It also means that we have to be ready to help them to identify, understand, and regulate their own feelings in order to make room for empathy.
FACILITATE RECOGNITION AND REGULATION OF EMOTIONS
Children learn, over time, to recognize and name their emotions and identify things that trigger those emotions. (“I feel sad when I get hurt.” “I feel mad when I can’t have something that I really want.” “I feel excited when I learn to do something I couldn’t do before.”) This is a natural part of child development, but there is no question that children who are guided in this endeavor and given opportunities to practice it regularly get better at it faster. Once a child learns to understand her own emotions, she is on the road to understanding that others have the same feelings. And once she can do that, she is on the road to turning her innate feelings of empathy into actions of empathic behavior. And if she’s been watching those around her modeling empathic behavior, then she knows just how to do it.
Daniel wasn’t poor, but he didn’t have a lot. He, along with his younger sister and mom, often had to rely on help from others. Daniel knew what he felt like when he was without something, and imagined what it would be like if he suddenly had nothing. Daniel felt sad and scared as he tried to put himself in the place of someone his age, thousands of miles away, living in a devastated slum of Port au Prince. He then felt the desire to help that child. He thought about what he could do to help. And then Daniel helped in the only way he knew how, by emptying his piggy bank into a ziplock bag and bringing it to school.
HELP THEM DO IT, EVEN WHEN IT’S HARD
Sometimes it’s not a matter of whether or not a child is empathic, it’s whether or not being empathic is convenient. He or she may know what the right thing to do is, and even want to do it, but another emotion (fear, anger, or worry usually) outweighs feelings of empathy (i.e. “I can see that he is sad and needs a friend, but I’m worried about what people will say about me.”). It’s important to talk and work through these times with children until eventually they have the courage to put their energy toward empathy over other negative emotions.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Like any good habit, empathy takes practice. We can’t expect children to be good at it right away, nor can we expect that one success will mean success in all future endeavors. There will naturally be ups and downs. The important thing is that they understand the importance of empathy and that they keep trying.
It’s hard to know for sure sometimes if kids are listening, if our words are getting through. I was a relatively new school administrator in 2010. I wasn’t yet a parent, myself. On the day before Daniel’s visit to the office, I was feeling unsure. As the children filed into an empty classroom for an impromptu assembly on a raw and rainy January day, I wasn’t sure of the best way to approach Daniel and his schoolmates. They seemed quietly curious as I showed them where Haiti was on the big world map and explained what had happened there, both geologically and socioeconomically. They were respectfully restless as I asked them to imagine themselves in the place of destitute earthquake victims who, even before the disaster had limited access to things like food and clean drinking water. Their attention seemed spent as the Student Council officers stepped in to share their fundraising ideas and to ask for everyone’s help in lending financial support to the people of Haiti. After a few closing words and reminders, teachers took their students off to class.
As I trudged back to the office I tried not to think that the last 15 minutes might have been a monumental waste of time. But still, I had to wonder. Were they even listening? Did they really care? It soon became apparent that they did. I learned then, and I know now: kids care.
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