Little Lessons: Raising empathic children

This youtube video about empathy explains the concept of empathy really well, and humorously too. It mentions that the four qualities of empathy are:

  1. perspective taking
  2. staying out of judgment
  3. recognising emotion in other people
  4. communicating that emotion

I think more often than not, I end up being a bit like the goat – taking comfort in my own safety net, avoiding making myself vulnerable, and silver-lining other people’s dark clouds.

Empathy is a key ingredient for success in all aspects of life, especially inter-personal relationships. But what really is empathy? This article on the 6 habits of highly empathic people on the Greater Good website defines it as:

empathy - a definition

I was convicted about three things from reading that article:

1) I should get out of my comfort zone and develop greater curiosity about people, especially those who are very different from me. Sometimes I allow fear to hold me back from striking up a proper conversation, and after a few steps forward I tend to retreat.

2) Seek to understand instead of judge.

3) Listen wholeheartedly, and avoid dishing out quick solutions and advice.

As I work on honing my empathic skills, I also hope to build that in my children.

Children who are empathic tend to do better in school and in social situations. Empathy also reduces aggression and is seen as the solution to bullying and other anti-social behaviour, as evidenced by Roots of Empathy, an evidence-based classroom program that has shown significant results in reducing levels of aggression among school children while raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy. Simply by allowing school children to observe the growth and development of an infant over an entire school year.

It’s definitely a good skill when it comes to conflict resolution. Vera and JJ now fight multiple times a week. Over the skate scooter, over who gets the last chocolate or biscuit, over who pushes the lift buttons… Anything and everything is a potential minefield.

I recently noticed that Vera shows a much greater level of empathy to baby J than to JJ. Whenever baby J cries, she would hurry over to him, coo at him, and offer him his soother or rock him if he’s on his rocker. She even tries to read his cries, like “you’re hungry huh…” or “you want your pacifier, is it?”

With JJ, it’s a different story. She’s inconsistent towards him – at times deciphering his wants and needs and helping him address those; at times ignoring him altogether.

I’ve praised and acknowledged her whenever she demonstrates some level of goodwill and kindness towards her brother. And vice versa with JJ. But on some days, both are unable to give in, JJ tries to grab something or unknowingly pushes Vera too roughly, and BOOM, tearfest.

I’ve had to step in and play mediator at least three times the last week. (I usually try to let big sister negotiate with him on her own, but I do step in when things go downhill.) I would bend down, eye to eye with the perpetrator or the person who looks most hurt at the moment (read: bawling loudly), and ask for a brief description of what happened. Whodoneit usually doesn’t matter to me as I want them to recognise that both are at fault.

Both have been selfish. Both have done wrong.

Sometimes (when I remember to), I would ask big sister and JJ this question: “How do you think (the other) feels after you pushed him / shouted at him / took his toy?”

“Sad” come the usual reply. Or “angry.” Sometimes…Silence.

Thankfully, there are ways to help our little ones develop and learn empathy. Here are some that I try to practise at home regularly:

Empathise with your child – acknowledge their emotions; don’t belittle them. “I know you really want to tie your laces yourself.” Or “Are you feeling angry because it was your turn to press the lift button but little brother pressed it instead?” Let them know that it isn’t wrong to feel upset, rejected, lonely, or afraid. But teach them to express these big emotions verbally, and give them ideas to cheer themselves up such as hugging their lovey or playing with their favourite toy.

Give them opportunities to hear each other out. Practise talking about your emotions in front of them too.

Read books about feelings such as My Many Coloured Days by Dr Seuss and The Very Cranky Bear.

Use pretend play – We’ve been discovering the world of pretend play lately, and I find it’s really useful for exploring even the most difficult, hard-to-speak-about emotions. Any soft toy can take on an identity and personality of its own so be creative and dramatic!

Last but not least, kids learn the most by how they’ve been treated. By us, the parents. When they are upset, cranky, or frightened, do we shut them out or scold them for feeling those emotions? This is a reminder for myself too, and I hope we learn to treat their feelings with care, so that they too can grow to be caring, sensitive, and empathic individuals.

Do you have a suggestion on how to encourage empathy in our children? I would love to hear your views and experience.

This is week 15 of the Little Lessons series, which runs on the blog every Thursday. Do grab our badge and link up your little lessons / learning activities below!

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