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How to Teach Children Empathy

Are you telling your child one thing and modeling something else?  What message are you sending your children when it comes to empathy for others?

Bullying. Teasing. Self-centeredness. Intolerance. Mean girls. Remind you of anything? (Your own childhood, perhaps?) Sadly, kids and adolescents are not typically known for their empathy. You often hear phrases like, “Kids can be cruel” or “Boys will be boys” to explain away bad behavior.

Unfortunately for us humans, empathy doesn’t come naturally; it must be taught – by parents, teachers, coaches, role models – anyone who interacts with kids daily, sporadically, rarely.

Basically, if you were once a kid, or have ever had an encounter with a child or teenager, or ever will, this message is for you.

The onslaught of social media can be part-credited, part-blamed for bringing the issues of bullying and intolerance among kids into focus. The 2011 documentary Bully, as well as numerous news reports of young kids committing suicide to escape their humiliation, have brought the issue close to home. And once it becomes real, people become more willing to do something about it.

But can anything really be done about it, or will “kids just be kids”?

We believe the heart of the issue is empathy.

Empathy: the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

When children learn to step outside of their own perspective and understand how their words and actions affect others, intolerance, selfishness, and other bad behaviors are easier to correct and control.

Empathy and Character Instruction

You may be aware that many schools and educators are tackling the issues of bullying and intolerance in the classroom by strategically integrating positive character traits and empathy into their daily instruction.

However, research by Harvard University’s Making Caring Common Project has revealed that despite these efforts, “kids may value academic achievement and individual happiness over caring for others.” (source: New York Times)

According to the report, kids were asked to answer what was most important to them: achieving at a high level, individual happiness (feeling good most of the time), or caring for others. Nearly 80% chose high achievement or individual happiness, while only 20% chose caring for others. They also ranked fairness low, valuing things such as “hard work” ahead of fairness.

The report stated:

Some youth made it quite clear to us that their self-interest is paramount: “If you are not happy, life is nothing. After that, you want to do well. And after that, expend any excess energy on others.”

The researchers concluded that the root of this problem may be a gap between what parents and other influential adults are saying is important, and what they are in fact modeling. Most of the kids felt that their parents cared more about them getting good grades than being a caring person, and the researchers’ conversations with and observations of parents tended to corroborate that.

The good news is, it’s not that empathy and caring for others are not important to these kids (or their parents) at all; on the contrary, they are. So the question becomes, how do we properly convey AND model empathy to our kids?

How to Teach Children Empathy

Harvard’s report offered some recommendations for teaching children empathy. Here they are in a nutshell:

  1. Repetition is key. Provide daily opportunities to practice caring and helpfulness with your child.
  2. Zoom in and zoom out. Kids need to learn how to “zoom in” – listen and attend to those in their immediate circle, but also to “zoom out” and consider multiple perspectives from those outside the circle.
  3. Be a strong moral role model. That doesn’t mean you’re perfect – it means you’re authentic, and constantly working on your own ability to improve and care for others.
  4. Help kids manage their feelings in a positive way. It’s okay to have feelings, but we have to deal with them appropriately.

Mean Girls

If you have a daughter, you may be keenly aware of the “mean girls” phenomenon. Child psychotherapist and parenting expert Katie Hurley started a friendship club at a school to help foster positive communication and relationships between fourth grade girls. Read more about her experience here.

She offers the following guidelines for parents of daughters:

  1. Empower your daughter to help. Stop competing with other parents and families; just be who you are, and let her be who she is. Rather than focusing on her academic or athletic achievements, encourage her to be a kind, caring person and help someone in need.
  2. Eliminate sarcasm from your vocabulary. Sarcasm is hurtful and unproductive, and if you use it with her, she will use it with others. Instead, model and promote healthy, honest communication.
  3. Create a positive group for girls. A knitting or scrapbooking group, a running club, etc., can be a safe place for empathy and communication to grow and blossom. Consistency is key.

Sounds like quite an undertaking, doesn’t it. Think it might take a little magic?

Well, according to this Huffington Post article, new research suggests the Harry Potter books may help curb intolerances and promote empathy.

Harry Potter empathizes with characters from stigmatized categories, tries to understand their sufferings and to act towards social equality,” the study’s leader, psychologist Dr. Loris Vezzali, told The Huffington Post in an email. “So, I and my colleagues think that empathic feelings are the key factor driving prejudice reduction.

The books’ author, J.K. Rowling herself called the Harry Potter series “a prolonged argument for tolerance, a prolonged plea for an end to bigotry.”

There are no surefire spells or magic words for teaching children empathy. Learning to see through the eyes of others is an ongoing process that can be difficult for adults, just as it is for kids. But if parents, educators and popular characters like Harry Potter continue to make the case for empathy, more children will grow up with the power to change the world – and they won’t even need a magic wand.