How do I teach my kids to empathise?
Empathy is critical for authentic human connection.
It helps you became much more impactful in the world because it facilitates trust - which is crucial for winning hearts and minds.
Empathy as a construct is multidimensional. I’ve talked about various attributes that comprise empathic ability before www.huddlewisdom.com/blog/3partempathy
...but there's still a lot that we are learning about empathy and its expression.
...we're also learning more about how we can effectively systematise and foster skills to improve our empathic capacity.
A myriad childhood experiences influences the development of empathic skill. The manner in which carers relate, communicate and transmit mental models of the world across to us. Cultural factors and social medial influences also can’t be ignored. All such things shapes young minds.
Parents/teachers clearly then have a critical role in the world. Indeed, rearing a child in the digital age is not for the complacent…You can’t predict what happens as your kids develop but you can prepare them.
Here are some key ideas that will help you cultivate kid's empathic ability
1️⃣Culture matters. Kids are born and are exposed to the culture in which the are embedded. So we must be open to talking about cultural differences and racial differences (yes i said it) because humans are prone to holding various biases (it’s normal) but we can learn to counteract unhelpful ones if we learn to recognise them…and we have to learn how to recognise them early. So be open about culture and race, talk about it.
2️⃣Celebrate differences so that we can appreciate our commonalities. Humans have less empathy for people they perceive as different but if we can help our kids appreciate similarities amongst difference...it grows capacity to empathise better [birds of a feather flock together, work together]
3️⃣Taking perspectives can be a double edged sword. Joining another person in their emotional experience can be draining for kids. Some kids run away when they see another child hurting - because feeling another’s pain is painful. It can cause us to avoid difficult emotions altogether and they won't master the art of empathy. We have to show them that it’s okay to feel other people’s emotions and that not lose ourselves in the process. ANd so, we as adults, have to first demonstrate this in our own lives (it's not easy I know but this is key).
Kids internalise what we put out into the world. One way of helping kids develop both perspective taking and learning how to metabolise emotions is by watching movies and then doing some selective analysis of the characters stories, the problems they faced, the feelings they felt, how they worked through it and conquered etc.
4️⃣ We empathise better when we like a person. One of my old bosses gave me the best pieces of advice ever when i was in medical training. In our clinic we often had patients who were somewhat rough around the edges and desperation makes it hard for people to remember social niceties. Made it hard to treat people well. He said to me, before you see so and so…i want you to intentionally “like them”. Do it. Practice it…it does get easier in time. But with kids it’s harder because they may not have the impulse control to suspend their dislike for someone…
Ask kids to rate the emotions of someone else…how sad or upset do you think they are for example. Kids are more likely to empathise with another person when they can stop and reflect on what they are feeling regardless of whether they are a friend or not.
Use characters in movies e.g.: Darth Vader for instance. Empathising with villains trains our ability to have compassion for others (this does not mean condoning their behaviour) and to help us understand rationalisations others make to justify their actions - rather than simply jumping to conclusions about their moral character.
5️⃣Children/people are less likely to show empathy if they feel shame and are regarded as “the villain”. We can act in villanous ways if we feel that others are using strategies to make us feel ashamed, threatened or humiliated. So be mindful of your tactics.
6️⃣Children can read faces but the younger they are, the less sophisticated they are with face reading. Have open discussions with kids about facial expressions and body language, tone of voice gestures etc. And relate that to an underlying emotion or thought process - life is grist for the mill. One good exercise is to find photos of people in magazines and then make up a narrative that you co-create together and as you’re telling the story you can mimic the facial expressions for depth and richness. Ask “What do you think his face would look like if he was feeling this? Or what would he be doing with his hands?”
Sometimes kids have a hard time talking to you about things when they need the most help. Learn to use emotional intelligence and empathic connection to gain co-operation without the friction.