Empathy. It’s a small word with huge importance. And something our culture seems to be lacking lately.
We live in a world where we are constantly inundated with information. Stories and pictures can be shared in an instant and spread like wildfire. And before we can even process what we see and hear, we can respond.
In our world of instant responses without face-to-face interaction, we’ve lost the ability to empathize with others.
We no longer see their reactions, their shock, their hurt, and are no longer forced to think about how other people feel.
Instead we focus on our gut reaction and then defend it to the death, afraid to admit we were wrong. Or that we might have reacted too quickly. Or that what we said was just plain not compassionate or appropriate (despite whether we still believe it or not.)
Empathy is not about having the same opinion or believing the same things as others but rather being able to understand another person’s point of view, even when it is vastly different from our own.
This perspective taking aspect of empathizing with others is a skill that allows one to see and understand other people’s feelings and viewpoints.
And, unfortunately, I’ve learned through the years that not everyone has the same level of empathy and perspective taking ability.
In fact, some people seem to completely lack the skill altogether.
And while I think part of it is personality based, I think a lot of being able to empathize can be taught from a young age.
The life experiences children have, the diversity they experience, and the things they see and hear from their parents and other trusted adults shape how their world is viewed and how they interact with other people.
Teaching children to empathize with others and to be successful at perspective taking involves more than just being respectful adults or showing them diversity, though, it involves having hard conversations about real people and situations.
It can be difficult to start conversations about empathizing with others and it’s even harder to let children guide the conversation and share their ideas and opinions.
But that’s what we need to do as parents: ask open-ended questions and let our children develop their own sense of understanding others rather than constantly pushing our personal views and opinions upon them.
Here are 4 easy conversation starters for teaching empathy to children:
How do you think that made them feel?
I use this one a lot when my kids do something hurtful to others whether it’s my toddler hitting his sister or my 7 year-old refusing to play with another child at the park.
I teach kindness and respect above all and it is never okay for my children to hurt another child (their bodies or their hearts) and I make sure my children see and recognize all the different types of hurt.
I also try to encourage them to rectify situations in which they’ve hurt another.
Why do you think they did that?
When my children are hurting, I don’t excuse the behavior of the hurt-causing person but I do try to help my children understand why another person made the decision they did.
Were my kids in the way? Being unkind? Antagonizing the other person? Or was it merely a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Teaching my children to be able to see and understand others’ choices helps them to forgive more easily, move on, and prevents them from holding grudges or hurt.
Do you think that is ok?
This is one covers so many topics from real life situations children witness to historical and/or story topics and is often part of a multifaceted conversation in which children are given the opportunity to analyze the different factors behind choices that were made.
Giving children facts about situations, rather than your personal opinions, and then allowing them to form an independent opinion gives them the opportunity to look at situations from differing view points before making a judgement about another person’s choices and actions.
What do you think about that? (And why?)
I also use this one in historical/news contexts.
Children have a pretty good gauge of right and wrong and part of empathizing with others is being able to see and understand the gray areas within morality.
It forces them to process their feelings against other circumstances and form an opinion. This also allows children to be able to defend and explain their opinions, rather than blindly repeating what they’ve heard or been taught.
Open-ended questions like these not only help children to develop perspective taking skills but also the ability to think independently and form their own opinions.
It helps them to recognize all people experience the world differently and often make decisions, even ones we don’t agree with, based on those individual experiences.
When we can understand other people’s choices, there is a better chance of being able to engage respectfully and kindly, rather than emotionally based on our own feelings and experiences.
And I believe this world can never have enough respect and kindness going around.