Doing Builds Empathy
April 15, 2010 · Posted in K-5 Kids, Parenting, Social Action, Teens · Permalink

p_2857137It is safe to say that parents are most prideful when they see their child reach out to someone in distress. An act like that is the physical manifestation of empathy, the ability to feel what someone else is feeling.

Even very young children show the ability to act on their empathic feelings. For instance, the giving up of a favorite toy when their friend is sad about not having it.  School age kids show empathy by going to sit at lunch with the new person in school, knowing how hard it must be to feel so self-conscious and alone. Teenagers welcome friends to their house knowing the scene at the friend’s home is less than comfortable.

So we are really talking about a feeling plus an action.  Humans are hard wired for empathy and it’s watering, like a seedling, helping it to grow and strengthen. Although this innate compassion exists, we must teach children to act upon their empathic feelings.

For starters, being able to relate to someone is crucial. Putting your emotions to action and actually helping others out takes it to another level.  Jane E. Brody has a very nice piece about empathy in the Science section of The New York Times. The article gives great guidelines about fostering empathy in children. She points out the importance of modeling for children. Humans are incredible in their abilities because they are able to learn vast and complex social behaviors from imitation. So as parents, we can’t just talk about empathy and practice empathic interactions within our families, we need to do empathy.

Doing empathy is writ large and small. It is doing volunteer work for people who have much less or are affected by a natural disaster such as Haiti or Katrina. It is practicing non-judgmental talk in your home and the strict avoidance of skewering other people as dinner time sport. Doing empathy is cooking for someone who has a new baby, or going to someone’s funeral. There are countless opportunities to do empathy and model the wonderful sense of purpose and happiness it brings to help out, even in very small ways, in other people’s lives.

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