Empathy is a big topic in our house. When my husband and I think about our family’s values, about who we see our children becoming, about our reasons for sending them to school and our approaches to discipline, empathy is the term that seems to come up the most frequently. How can we raise empathic children? How can we help them to truly see other people and try understanding instead of anger? How can we teach them that the world is so much bigger than our little lives?
Over the past several months, we have been inundated by images of violence, injustice, and heartbreak across our country and throughout our world. Overlaying it all are some very loud voices spewing vitriol and hate and fear. Yet, as I filter through that noise, I have been struck by the frequency with which some of my favorite writers have continued to emphasize and discuss the importance of empathy. From Brene Brown to Pema Chodron to the Obamas, there is a collective call for all of us to walk in each other’s shoes, open our eyes to the experiences of people different than ourselves, and practice non-judgmental perspective-taking.
For me, the only way that it makes sense to teach a mindset is through modeling. If we want our children to be respectful, we show them respect. If we want our children to be calm, we remain calm. If we want our children to be empathic, we offer empathy. This is where it can get a bit tricky. When someone asks us to open our hearts and try to understand the suffering of Syrian refugees, or victims of gun violence, or people struggling with poverty, I know that is a situation deserving of the utmost empathy and understanding. However, when my four-year-old is inconsolable because he can’t have a second popsicle before dinner, it feels a tad bit less, well, urgent. Refugees = empathy, popsicle monsters= sigh/eye roll.
Except, that is the tricky thing about empathy. In order to be empathic, we don’t actually need to agree, to be having the exact experience, or to think that someone is ‘right’. All we need to do is to connect with the emotion, however big or small. Feeling disappointed, wanting something that I can’t have – I do know how that feels. I can step into his little shoes and momentarily relate to his frustration that he is not in control, not getting what he wants. And on those days when I am dealing with what feels like the 1,000th unreasonable request and empathy is the farthest thing from my mind, if I can connect with the emotion, I can still truthfully tell him that I understand: “That popsicle (game, ice cream, broken toy) does sound so good (fun, delicious, interesting, important, upsetting).”
When we teach empathy to our children, we must start small. Little ideas, little moments, easily observable, easily relatable. We can’t expect our children to wake up one morning understanding the plight of the oppressed if they have never practiced what it might feel like to be in their little sister’s shoes after they’ve refused to let her play. Through our actions, words, compassion, and understanding, we start planting the seeds of empathy, trusting that as it becomes developmentally appropriate for them, they will have in place the solid foundation for deep understanding.