Empathy and sympathy are often confused. To have empathy means to identify with the feelings of others and share in them. People who have sympathy feel compassion for others, but do not relate those feelings back to themselves. Empathy is a learned trait. Teaching children to be empathetic will help them become able to understand and help those who are struggling and suffering. These 3 tips will help you get started in teaching this important character trait.
Discuss empathy in everyday situations
When you first begin to teach your young children about empathy, you will have to explain what it means. For example, if your toddler hits a playmate and takes his toy, discuss with her how she would feel if a friend did that to her. Point out people who are feeling sad and discuss why they might feel that way. Ask your children what they could do to help. If a family member is sick, encourage others to help him or her in little ways.
Making your children more aware of times they should be empathetic will help them learn to feel empathy on their own. Be open to the things and experiences they discuss with you. They will have disagreements with friends and feel wronged. Help them see both sides of the situation and apply empathy.
Set the example
Children look to parents and trusted adults to set an example. Empathy is no different. If you want your children to be empathetic, you will need to be as well. Chances are your desire to be a good parent and the natural feelings of love you have for your children make you empathetic, but be aware of the way you act and the example you are setting. Don't brush off the feelings of those you come in contact with as invalid. Listen to and love all family members.
If I am dealing with a sad or hurt child and another child demands my attention, I point out what I am doing with words like “Your sister needs my help for a few minutes. Can you see that she is sad? I will help you as soon as I am done. Do you want to help me cheer her up?” Your empathetic nature will inspire your children to do likewise.
Involve your children
After you've spent some time discussing empathy and setting an example, get your children involved in empathetic behavior. Have them make cards for relatives, help you make and take meals to sick neighbors and serve with you as you comfort grieving friends. When we heard of the terrible earthquake in Japan a few years ago, we didn't just talk about how awful it would be to go through that situation. Instead, as a family, we gathered funds and made a donation to help the Japanese people. Exercising empathy often means taking action, and children are usually ready to help.
A few more thoughts on empathy
First, children whose needs are being met are more able to develop empathy. Children who live in unstable situations might be more concerned with safety and hunger than more complex emotions. Be patient with them. Second, don't assume boys can't learn empathy. They might seem naturally less empathetic than girls, but they can develop this trait and it will help them as they grow up and interact with others. Finally, don't despair if your child seems self-absorbed. Continue to discuss, model and provide opportunities to serve. Children will learn to be empathetic to some degree, and you will be a very proud parent when you observe this trait in them.
Amy M. Peterson, a former high school English teacher, currently lives in Oregon with her husband and four children. She spends her days writing, reading, exercising and trying to get her family to eat more vegetables.