“He never cries at movies or is concerned if his friends are hurt. But he’s a boy, so I’m not worried.”
“Her teachers say my daughter is mean and seems to enjoy it when her classmates cry. I’m sure it’s just a phase she’ll outgrow.”
“He never seems to care about anyone but himself, but it’s probably just his temperament. Besides, I can’t do anything about it.”
If statements like this ring a bell for you, or for a parent you know, read on. There’s a lot about empathy we need to understand, says author Dr. Michelle Borba, in her book “UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.”
We read about it nearly every day. From petty meanness and drama to kids telling kids to GKY (go kill yourself), the online world has spawned a disturbing uptick in bullying. Yet our best efforts at curbing the trend have consistently come up short.
One reason may be that we are failing to address the root cause of the problem: empathy, or more accurately, the lack thereof.
Empathy – the capacity to put oneself imaginatively in another’s shoes – is an essential item in the emotional toolkit every child needs to thrive and mature. And, in an increasingly online world, it’s a mindset they need now more than ever.
The good news is that empathy can be taught. And a growing body of evidence shows what parents can do to nurture this special form of emotional intelligence.
The psychology of empathy
The first thing to understand about empathy is that it isn’t something we’re born with (or not). It’s not a trait – it’s a complex skillset that is primarily shaped by learning.
While it’s true that human babies will become distressed when they hear another baby crying – psychologists call this innate response “affective empathy” – cultivating this reflex into a conscious, lifelong sensitivity to the feelings of others will depend on experience and input from others.
Mum and dad, needless to say, are the most important “others.” As parents we model certain communication styles and nurture particular kinds of social relationships.
“But teaching empathy depends on more than being a good role model,” notes evolutionary anthropologist and Parenting Science blogger Dr. Gwen Dewar. “It depends on more than assigning kids a few educational activities.
“We need to understand the psychology of empathy, and the basic skills that children need to share emotions, read minds, and offer help.”
Top tips for parents
Here are her top tips for doing just that.
1. Give kids the support they need to develop strong self-regulation skills. Simply put, when kids feel secure in themselves, they are more likely to make themselves vulnerable when others are in need of help – to be “upstanders” not “bystanders” to bullying.
2. Teach kids to name and navigate their own difficult emotions. Acknowledging negative feelings, and having open conversations about emotions and how they happen are the keys here. (Did you grow up in a family where the motto was “be pleasant or go to your room”? If so, you may need some help with this one.)
3. Understand the difference between shame and guilt. When you shame a child, you make her feel bad about herself. When you develop her sense of responsibility for her actions, she will feel guilt. Shame gets in the way of empathy. Guilt – in moderate doses – will encourage it.
4. Find everyday opportunities to engage their empathy muscle.
How? Says Dewar, “Research suggests we need only ask. A simple question – asking kids to reflect on what other people are feeling – can make a difference.”
5. Help them find similarities, not differences, with others. Adults feel more empathy for people they imagine to be similar to themselves. And kids are no different. Foster that sense by pointing out commonalities with others who may on the surface appear to be different – whether from another culture, race or background, or physically or intellectually challenged.
6. Consider introducing them to techniques of mindfulness and meditation. In some traditions, the focusing of mental energy on the wellbeing of ourselves and others is called “prayer.” But whatever label we put on it, research suggests that certain meditative practices can be helpful in developing both self-compassion and empathy.
7. Help them to internalise a strong sense of right and wrong.
Moral behaviour that depends on external rewards and punishments is of limited value. In fact, experiments have shown kids are often less likely to help others if given tangible rewards for it.
The alternative to sticks and carrots is simple: conversation. Kids are much more likely to develop an inner sense of morality when their parents explore with them how wrongdoing affects others.