Resilience in Children

Three Ways to Teach Our Children Empathy

Published: 14 Oct 2015
Three Ways to Teach Our Children Empathy

In recent weeks domestic violence has been placed firmly on the national agenda, with our Prime Minister joining prominent voices like Rosie Batty to demand a change in the way we treat others. At the heart of the matter is the word ‘respect’. According to the Prime Minister, if men would respect women (and I would add, if parents would respect children), we would see fewer incidences of violence in relationships.

Empathy is the foundation of respect

But what underlies respect? How do we teach it to our children?

I believe that in order to respect another person, whether they are our spouse/partner, child, or a neighbour, we need another critical skill to serve as our foundation – the ability to see things from another’s perspective. We often call this skill empathy.

What can we do to promote greater empathy in our children?

Ways to develop empathy – in us and our children

First, we can model it ourselves.

Unfortunately, because we see ourselves as the centre of the universe much of the time, we do not typically model empathy particularly well. Consider this: what do our children see in our behaviour when we are inconvenienced? When we are cut off by an impatient driver on the road, given poor quality service in a store, or when our children fail to follow instructions, how do we respond?

In these instances we often respond with anger, annoyance, and judgement. We make ourselves the centre of the universe. Our response is one of frustration at being put out, ignored or undermined. We lack empathy for the other person.

We can respond differently, and model empathy to our children. In the case of a speeding, inconsiderate driver we might pause and comment “Wow, that driver seems to be in a hurry. I hope they’re ok and not late for a plane or a train… or maybe they’re rushing to the hospital.” While these scenarios are unlikely, they show a willingness to consider the potential reality of the other person, and a capacity to control our responses. This is an important lesson for our children.

When the store assistant gives us poor service and a sour face, we might comment to our child, “Gee, I wonder what has happened to him today to make him so grumpy? Perhaps the boss got mad at him, or a customer was rude and made him feel bad?”

When a child fails to follow instructions, we can consider, “Is my child hungry, angry, lonely, tired, stressed, or sick?”

A willingness to consider alternative views of others’ circumstances changes our responses towards them. We become more compassionate, kind, and understanding. We become more balanced, considered, and mindful. We become happier. Our relationships improve. These responses teach our children that we can enter the world of another person and see how life may be for them. We can teach that humility and humanity, rather than anger, is the best way to respond to challenging interpersonal situations.

Second, we can encourage perspective taking by asking them what they perceive in others.

With young children, we might read a book and pause, asking how each character is feeling in a particular scenario. “We know that the girl is excited. But how about her brother? How does this make him feel?”

During a conflict between my two eldest children, my eldest daughter was blamed for hitting her little sister. Denials followed until I asked this question. “Chanel, you keep telling me you didn’t hit Abbie, but imagine you were her. If I asked you what your big sister did, and how you were feeling – and you were her – what would you say?” My little girl was silent. Then, sheepishly, she stated, “That Chanel hit me and I feel upset.” Perspective taking – empathy – helped her to realise what it was like to be in her sister’s shoes, and to see the world through her eyes.

Third, we can help them to be sensitive to the cues others send.

We can do this by helping them identify body language, tone of voice, or facial expressions of others. “I know you’re excited about playing that game with your friend, but what did you notice about his face when you suggested it?” “We know that restaurant x is your favourite, and it is your birthday, but do you recall how your grandparents felt last time we went there? What might visiting there again with them lead to?”

It is harder to be violent and disrespectful when you have empathy

One of the many factors that contributes to domestic violence is that offenders (usually men) are unwilling to see the world through their partner’s or children’s eyes. They must have things their way. They want to be in control. The perspectives, feelings, and preferences of others are ignored and unimportant. Perhaps many of these offenders never had their perspective considered, or perhaps they were never taught to consider and be respectful and responsive to the perspectives of others.

When we teach our children (by example and precept) to see others as real people, with real feelings, hopes, dreams, and desires, and with the same human frailties we all possess, we teach them to see others as humans whose lives are every bit as precious as their own. We teach them to value and respect others. We teach them to treat others the way others would like to be treated.

While not a silver bullet, our ability to be empathic towards our children, and to teach them to be empathic towards others, is a critical life skill that builds emotional intelligence, strengthens positive relationships, and creates within them a desire to help rather than hurt.


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