Growing up, I had a pretty privileged childhood.
One of the things I remember is my mother mail-ordering dresses for me from Mothercare. This off course, was the pre-internet era when e-commerce was a non-existent word, so my mother would have to order the catalog to our house, go through each glossy page and manually fill in the order form with the different items she wanted for me. She would then wait several weeks for the clothes to arrive, and once they did, I knew it was just a matter of time before I would be forced to wear them to some school event or party.
Wearing those fancy dresses was definitely not something I enjoyed doing . I was the quintessential tomboy, the one who’d rather be dead than caught in a dress , the one whose only Christmas wish, repeated every year off course, was to wake up as a boy and the one who insisted on short boy-haircuts until puberty hit.
But that was only one of the reasons I didn’t like wearing fancy dresses. The other reason was because I hated to think that other girls might see me and wish they had dresses like that to wear. I knew that even though I absolutely despised those fluffy girly dresses, this was not the case for the majority of girls my age. And to me, it felt like I was parading my good fortune to kids who may not have the same privileges I did.
At the time, I didn’t know that what I was feeling was empathy. I only knew that I cringed whenever I had to wear it outside.
Now, in retrospect, I’m pretty sure that my concern was highly unnecessary and I really needn’t have worried about other girls feeling sad whenever I wore one of those detested dresses but it was something that came naturally. In fact, children feeling and showing empathy is quite normal. Any school yard anywhere in the world at any given time would have been witness to the scene of a child skinning their knee and their friend coming up to them to comfort them.
Empathy is possibly the end point of a spectrum with pity being at the other end, with sympathy and compassion in the middle.
Pity is a response to someone’s pain but carries with it an element of judgement and ‘looking down’ on them. Sympathy is a lesser form of pity and compassion is a closer emotion to empathy. But empathy is the emotion which truly connects humans because it includes and connects rather than separates. Sympathy and pity elicit sorrow laced with ‘glad I’m not in that position’ and ‘poor you’ feelings, which automatically separates the observer from the person experiencing the pain. Empathy and on a lesser note compassion, are inclusive emotions which elicit ‘I feel your pain’ and ‘I know what that feels like’ feelings which then include and connect.
Paul Ekman, an American psychologist, theorizes that there are 3 types of empathy: cognitive empathy which allows us to know and understand what someone else is feeling; emotional empathy which allows us to feel what others are feeling and compassionate empathy which is a combination of both cognitive and emotional empathy and also goes on to take action to help resolve the situation.
In this post, we refer to compassionate empathy, which should be the end goal.
Empathy is a biological trait that we start to develop very early on. In fact, babies as young as a few months old show feelings of empathy so empathy is something that almost all of us are born with.
This is good news, because that means that we can do something to help make our children more empathetic. But, what really is the importance of empathy? Why has empathy become such a buzz word and what is the relevance of nurturing it in the present day?
Empathy is in fact quite an important characteristic to develop.
It is now recognized that empathy is an important quality to cultivate in the workplace too, a place where formerly only logical thinking and analytics were the priority.
According to Bill Nye (the Science Guy), having empathy is necessary for our very survival as it gives us an evolutionary advantage. It makes sense, because as extremely social beings who survive and thrive because of our emotional and social networks, having empathy and being able to see something from someone else’s point of view would be critical to maintaining and improving those social connections.
So how do we go about nurturing empathy in our children?
1. Model empathy
As with anything, if we really want our children to be a certain way, one of the best ways to go about achieving that is to model that behaviour so that they see it in action. Children are natural copycats, imitating our each and every behaviour sometimes, no matter how irrational it may be.
This is kind of perfect because it means that we can quite easily get our kids thinking and acting empathetically just by doing it ourselves.
There’s a saying that you can easily tell what someone is like by the way they treat the servers at a restaurant, but this would hold true for anyone who holds a disproportionate amount of power compared to the other person.
So go out of your way to smile, greet and be kind to the staff, little eyes are watching you. The extra benefit is that it will make you pretty happy too
Sometimes off course, being empathetic is very hard.
One time, I was walking with my girls in Toronto..it was on a rather steep incline and there was an elderly lady behind us, pulling her cart filled with groceries. I stopped and asked her if she would like me to pull the cart for her until we reached the top and instead of replying ‘No thank you’, she started screaming at me in filth, with two scared 5 year olds watching on.
It took me completely by surprise because it was the first time that kind of thing had happened to me in Canada. I hurriedly apologized to her and herded the kids away before they asked me what the F word was, that the lady kept shouting out.
I later explained to them that we shouldn’t be mad at her, even though it was very hard not to be, but in fact we should feel a little sorry for her. She probably got scared. I am brown and as is the case sometimes, people jump to rather wrong conclusions based on silly stereotypes. So she may have decided that I was out to steal her groceries.
Another reason why I try to practice empathy wherever I go is because I am a firm believer that everything that happens in life is sort of like a boomerang. Whatever we put out into the world is what we attract back into our lives. Put out kindness and empathy to others and others treat you with the same. Put out hate and anger towards others and that is what is returned to you.
2. Treat them with empathy
Modelling empathy means treating them with empathy too…and that can be mighty difficult sometimes! When my 3 year old screams, cries and launches himself at me in anger for not giving him another cookie, I cannot count the number of times I have screamed back. And then later totally regretted it because it was a very teachable moment. But what sane person can think about teachable moments during a toddler tantrum, right?! But that doesn’t mean you can’t try. Instead of screaming “stop crying, I’ve had enough of this behaviour”, maybe could say something like “I know you want another cookie..I agree, they are delicious. It’s ok to be sad but once you’re done, let’s cut up some yummy apple”
Also don’t forget, practicing empathy absolutely means that you treat yourself with empathy too. I think that for us moms especially, that might be the most difficult thing of all to do. But our children are watching us and the way we treat ourselves will be the way they treat us and also, one day, the way they treat themselves. One thing I know I struggle with is setting boundaries and not letting the kids guilt me into stuff. And boy, are they good at laying it on thick!!
3. Refrain from rescuing them all the time
Parents nowadays see themselves as being overprotective. I guess this is understandable because of the horrible things we see and hear on the news. But when we rescue our child from every possible difficult situation, adversity and conflict, we are in fact doing them a disservice. Adversity is a fact of life and no matter how hard we try to protect our little ones, there is no way we can do it entirely. At some point, they are going to come up against it. And how resilient they are to it will depend on past experience. So it’s better for them to experience it early on while they have us - the unconditional non-judgemental and loving environment - to come home to after managing all that conflict.
Not only does experiencing adversity help children become more resilient but research also shows that it helps build empathy. A study which compared the levels of adversity people had suffered and the amounts of empathy and compassion they felt, demonstrated that greater adversity resulted in more empathy() which of course makes sense because it’s when you experience something painful first hand that you can really and truly understand what someone else in the same situation is feeling.
It’s harder to feel compassion for someone else if you yourself aren’t in a place of contentment. Which is why it’s so important to cultivate gratefulness in children. Developing an attitude of being grateful for what one already has helps to counteract feelings of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. So talking about the importance of being grateful, exposing them to other ways of life and how people live in other countries and modelling gratitude are just a few ways in which you can help your child develop an attitude of gratefulness.
Gratitude and empathy go hand in hand so that the more grateful a person is in general, the more empathetic they are too.
5. Talk about it
Having empathy for people we know and like is easy. It’s also easy to feel empathy for people who we identify with and feel are similar to us. It’s much less easy to do when they’re quite different and when we may not understand them or see eye to eye with them.
Talking to children about different cultures, different backgrounds and how everyone is different with different ideas and opinions can teach them that other’s opinions, no matter how different from their own, are equally valid. Encourage them to imagine being in some other child’s shoes and having their life, and talk about what they might feel and do in that situation. This generates feelings of oneness and togetherness, with empathy being a natural offsprout of those feelings.
Talk to your child about how you feel and generate empathy for other people and address any challenges you feel when you have difficulty with it. How do you look for some common ground with someone else, especially when commonality is not immediately apparent. Openly discuss with them the difficulties you might face, such as finding yourself judging someone, when it comes to extending empathy and compassion for someone.
We are, for the most part, all born with varying degrees of empathy but it is also something that can be cultivated. Cultivating consistent empathy does not happen overnight and takes regular practice to incorporate it as a habit, but the effects of being an empathetic person not only benefit others around us, but also our own selves too.