Empathy is the ability to understand what another person is feeling, to understand how you would feel if you were in that situation and the motivation to treat people kindly based on that understanding.
Empathy is an extension of self-concept, but it is far more complex. It does require awareness that others have emotions and thoughts that are both similar and different from our own.
Empathy is the foundation of the ability to love and it is at the core of good character. Unlike intelligence and looks, which depend a great deal on genetics, empathy is a skill children learn. More than any other skill it leads to success in school, in social situations and in careers. Empathy has ben recognized as one of the most important qualities of a leader in any field and in any culture. The very best teachers of empathy are parents.
When do children begin to develop empathy?
From birth, children are aware of the emotions of those around them and can become distressed if they hear crying, smile if they hear laughter; they can copy the emotions they see on their caregiver's face from a few months of age. Although this isn’t necessarily empathy, it is the precursor in that the baby is aware of how another’s emotions and reacts accordingly.
By the time a baby is around one you will generally see the first signs of empathy emerging. After their first birthday you may find your child will attempt to comfort a distressed or hurt child or parent with a pat, a cuddle or by handing them something to comfort them like a toy. So here you are seeing what is called ‘pro-social behaviour’. This is when the child not only responds to the emotion of the other person but they take some action to try to make that person feel better.
By around 18 months children will often ask, “Are you OK?” and will be more consistent in offering comfort. This increases from then on.
How can I help my child develop empathy?
Some children are naturally more empathetic than others at a younger age and studies have shown that girls tend to demonstrate empathy earlier than boys. What we must remember is that in young children empathy is not usually shown consistently and while your child may seem like a little angel offering help and cuddles one day, the next day he may not be in the least bit bothered by someone’s misfortune. This is perfectly normal.
When your young child shows empathy praise that behavior. Say how pleased you are to see her being kind to others. The more you praise the behavior the more likely your child is to repeat it.
For your child to be comfortable expressing their own feelings and to be able to understand the feeling of others it is helpful if you talk about feelings openly at home. Expressing how you are feeling or how you think someone else might be feeling will help your child be aware of the impact behavior can have on someone’s mood. By communicating clearly about how your child’s behavior is making you feel and asking about how they feel you are helping your child develop an awareness of, and the vocabulary to, express their feelings and begin to understand the feelings of others.
This openness in communication develops emotional fluency. Someone who is emotionally fluent is also capable of picking up the cues in another person's response to conversation. Knowing what the other person is feeling allows you to adjust your own emotional state and your language to bring it into harmony with that of the other person. I believe if more emphasis was put on developing this skill we would see a lot less bullying, both cyber bullying and in the school yards.
What can hinder the development of empathy?
The Internet has enabled us to explore different ways of life across the globe, it has brought the faces of undernourished children into our homes and has helped us understand the plight of millions of animals whose habitat is being destroyed at an alarming rate. This helps us to understand the fear, hunger and pain so many people are suffering. Through the Internet we are able to reach out and help people or animals in far off places. Unfortunately, the increased access to computers and Internet means we are able to play games where the violence seems to have no consequence and we can communicate with people we are unlikely to ever meet. This can deaden the development of empathy.
There are many studies being done on the impact these violent video games. The findings of these studies is generally that:
Therefore as parents it is an important part of our role to monitor what our children are being exposed to. Make sure your children do not watch too much violence, either on YouTube, in games or movies. It really is damaging for their healthy development. As children get older make sure you are able to monitor the relationships and communication they have with others on the Internet, whether it is Facebook or other social networks. These are forums where children can often be very unkind to one another and without face-to-face communication there seems to be little consequence to that behavior.
More than anything we want our children to grow up happy and succeed in what they put their mind to. Above all, including all academic skills, the development of empathy is the skill that is most likely to enable that. So try to make sure that your child has the time and opportunity to talk to you about feelings; how they are feeling, how you are feeling and how others may be feeling. Think about it, that is likely to be far more valuable in the long run than any other structured activity or tuition lesson. Keep talking!
At Chiltern house Singapore, students are taught to be empathetic to their peers whether during learning or during playing.
Five fun ways to expand your child’s world view
Be a good role model. If you are interested in different people and places and enjoy the diversity of this planet your children are very likely too as well! .
Q: My elder son taunts his little brother by calling him “gay”, despite repeated reminders that it is mean. How do I handle this?
A: I think it is very difficult to get children to stop teasing their younger siblings. I am not aware of how old your children are but I think, unless your children are aware of the meaning of the word “gay”, then I would try to ignore it. Speak to the younger son about ignoring the older brother when he is teasing him. The more the little one reacts the more the big one will do it. If your younger son does become distressed by this name calling then have a serious chat with the elder boy alone, explaining how unkind it is to say things that are hurtful. Ask him to please think of how this is making his brother feel, even if he thinks that the younger boy is being silly.
Q: I always try to model behavior by giving money to the one-armed tissue seller near my house. When I encouraged my son to share his pocket money, he declined.
Where did I go wrong?
A: You haven’t gone wrong! You are completely on the right track. By both modeling giving to those less fortunate and by encouraging your son to actively do the same you are helping develop both empathy and charity. Almost all children find to hard to give up their own belongings, including money. Rather than suggest your son gives up his pocket money you could talk to him about a specific charity, what they do and how it benefits the group they work with. You will then find that your son will come up with his own suggestions of how he could help. Find a charity that is something that will appeal to your child. My son is very interested in an orangutan rehabilitation centre in Sarawak. He hasn’t yet suggested giving up any of his pocket money but I am confident he will one day.
Q: How do I teach my child to not judge others and to be accepting?
A: The answer is very simple: by being so yourself. If you respect differences in cultures, languages, abilities, backgrounds, viewpoints, priorities, races and religions your children will too.
Q: If my child develops too much empathy does that mean they will be too soft and unable to stand up for themselves?
A: Not at all! Remember that empathy is not the same as sympathy. Sympathy is described in the Oxford Dictionary as “sharing another person’s emotions; to have compassion for.” Empathy is not about agreeing or even sharing emotions. It is about sensing another’s emotions and understanding their perspective.
Empathy enables us to connect with others and the better we can do that the more successfully we can communicate with others and the more trusting relationships we can have. Empathy has been identified as the key ingredient of competence in leadership styles. So encourage your child to be in tune with the feelings and emotions of others as well as their own.
Here are some examples of books for young children that focus on empathy:
1. Priscilla McDoodlenutDoodleMcMae Asks Why? by Janet Mary Sinke
2. The Boy Who Grew Flowers by Jennifer Wojtowicz
3. We're All In the Same Boat by Zachary Shapiro
4. Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson
5. Always Room for One More by Sorche Nic Leodhas
6. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
7. The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes
8. It's Okay to Be Different by Todd Parr
Books for adults: