Teach More Than “Charity” This Season, Teach Your Kids Empathy!
By Mary Ann Benson, M.S.W., L.S.W.
One of the most influential quotes I have ever heard was “I can’t hear a word you’re saying. Your example is screaming in my ears.” I believe the ability to be empathetic is natural for some people, but anyone can learn that critical skill if they observe it in action in their lives on a regular basis.
The home environment and the people in it offer the greatest education that a child ever gets. There is a responsibility for parents to model caring behavior for their family members and others outside the family circle. Then it’s important that they provide routine opportunities for their children to assist others. Again, some have the mistaken notion that we have to look outside of our homes for service. One of the places that empathy is most important is within our family systems, where we often have less concern for people’s needs and feelings than we do in the outside world.
Empathy is the willingness to share another’s emotion even if you don’t understand it. Our electronic culture has created isolation and many people have few personal interactions in their routines. This causes one to lose touch with his or her humanity and the universal need for support from positive engagement with others. I have an extended family member who told me that when she was a child, her parents had her and her three sisters clear out their old toys and clean them up the week before Christmas, and then deliver them to a local homeless shelter. That same family always served Thanksgiving dinner at a shelter in the early afternoon before their family gathered for their celebration. From an early age, she understood the value of thinking about others and their challenging circumstances.
Parents can ask their children specific questions to help them understand empathy:
- What does it mean to share someone’s emotions?
- Can you think of a time when someone helped you when you were experiencing a strong emotion?
- How did that support help you at that time?
- How did that support make you feel toward the other person?
- How can you help others when they are having an emotional challenge?
- How can helping each other manage our emotions build a strong friendship network, family, and community?
Ask your child to think of someone he or she knows who is sad, lonely, etc. and decide how he or she can show concern and support to that individual. Brainstorm ideas and assist with follow-through. For example, write a letter, bake cookies, or simply smile at a clerk in the grocery store. Encourage and facilitate at least weekly interactions with family and/or peers. Discuss their respective needs after spending time with them and help your child to identify ways in which he or she could offer assistance. Make this a weekly endeavor.
I want to stress that the practice of empathy is more important in our families than anywhere else. I know of a gentleman who puts notes in his children’s lunch boxes EVERY SCHOOL DAY. He encourages them and validates them in whatever is going on in their lives at that time. He also leaves a note for his wife, expressing his love and appreciation EVERY DAY before he leaves for work. What a delightful practice that his family will never forget!
The family is the basic unit of society, and what is learned there carries out into the world. It manifests itself in our schools, our workplaces, our government, and in our public places. Empathy is a necessary foundation to create people who are in tune with those around them and who graciously respond to them in whatever way they can.
Parents are overwhelmed with the amount of screen time their children are engaging in, and that is a valid worry. It would be wise to show them the personal satisfaction and enjoyment that can be achieved when we shut down our devices and pay closer attention to the people in our lives and how we can help them.
I’d like to share a quote from Lloyd Shearer that presents a concrete way to develop empathy:
“Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the wrong. Sometime in your life you will have been all of these.”
Parents need to be hypervigilant in teaching their children how to emotionally connect with the people around them. Meaningful relationships in our families, schools, workplaces and communities lead to some of the richest experiences that life has to offer.
Empathy is an essential life-skill and just one of the important topics addressed in our book, 30 Days to a Stronger Child, available on Amazon. The book includes great questions, lessons and challenges to help your kids learn to fill their emotional, intellectual, social, physical and spiritual “accounts.” Other topics include: respect, accountability, positive self-talk, addiction, gratitude, critical thinking, and many more–30 lessons in all.
Looking for a great children’s book that teaches empathy and the value of using technology for good? Check out Noah’s New Phone: A Story About Using Technology for Good. Noah discovers how it feels to be on the giving and receiving end of some not-so-friendly behavior on social media. As kids read and see what choices he is faced with, they can easily empathize with his struggles as he learns about the positive and negative power he holds in his hands.
Mary Ann Benson is currently an outpatient mental health counselor for individuals and couples. She is also a Mental Health Consultant and Trainer for the Head Start programs in three counties. She has been in the mental health field since 1996 and has a Master’s Degree in Social Work from Temple University. Mary Ann has four adult children, one son, and three daughters. She has five delightful grandchildren and resides in Central Texas with her husband.