Instilling Empathy in our Children

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Empathy is a critical life skill that is seldom given its due. As parents, we tend to give more importance to grades and performance or something more tangible. While we stress good manners, we forget that something as simple as Empathy is vital for our children to grow up to be well-adjusted adults.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is an emotion that makes you feel what the other person is feeling and see things from the other person’s perspective. It may sound very confusing initially, but with time, it becomes a part of our nature. More importantly, it can be challenging to teach a little one, but it is not impossible. 

As a mother and a freelancer, Priya Harish explains, “Empathy means to understand the other’s emotional state, problems or frame of mind. Where we can put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and to not only feel but also help them out in that situation.”

She further adds, “I have taught Empathy to my son by showing him how to respect everything that is provided to him, be it food, clothing, shelter, education; practically everything. I have taught him to donate his toys, clothes, food, books and also good ideas and thoughts.”

Where can it be learned?

Empathy is primarily learned from the immediate social group – starting with the family, school and some close friends and relatives. It is a trait that is usually taught and instilled into the child. Most of the time, children learn by observing. Children are a reflection of their parents, so before we point fingers at them or blame them or others, maybe we should take stock as to whether we’re going wrong somewhere. 

Set the right example 

Children learn by observing. For us to teach them to be empathetic, we have to practice what we preach. So the next time we’re in conversation with other adults in the house, observe your own sentences and how you are speaking about others. Believe it or not, a child is tuning into everything we’re doing or saying even when she may appear to be busy playing.

For Manisha Mehta, a London based HR professional and a mother of two, “I usually ask my 10-year-old to imagine being in the same spot and ask him how he would like his friends/family to behave. Basic things like offering his seat to the aged or elderly, respecting elders, being polite to everyone, including the house help, constitute a part of this learning. These little gestures will hopefully go a long way in sowing seeds of Empathy in him.”

She further adds, “But the best way to teach children is by modelling. I’ve often seen that my son learns much more by observing our behaviour than by anything we try to teach him verbally. So if he sees my husband offer his seat to someone or help a random stranger with their luggage…that gesture stays with him forever.”

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Let the child share her feelings

I remember, when I was as little as in Prep II, on my way back home from school, I spotted a wounded donkey limping on the roadside. I was disturbed. I came home and I cried and shared with my mum how I felt. I still remember how she and my dad sat down and listened to me as I described how bad I felt seeing a wounded limping donkey. I actually used the word ‘poor thing’. This little act of mine was an early show of Empathy, as I felt the pain of the donkey and I’m glad as a child my parents listened to me when I came home. Because my parents listened with rapt attention, this helped encourage me to become the empathetic individual I am today. 

Explain with examples

Taking my daughter to the park is a great learning experience for both of us. We usually go to a central park in the neighbourhood where kids from different social and economic backgrounds also come to play. There are instances where they want to play softball with her or make sandcastles in the pit with her. If my daughter chooses not to play with them, I can see the disappointment spread across their faces. That’s when I step in, politely explaining to her that it may have hurt the other child when she refused to share the sand toys. Though she may not register it on the first go, but it certainly remains in her memory for future reference. So when in school, if a classmate doesn’t share a toy with her, I instantly point out how the child in the park must have felt and she connects the dots. 

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Praise good behaviour 

Sometimes it is okay to let your child hear praise or two about appropriate behaviour. When you see that your son has shared his toy with another kid or has offered to help you or your spouse in the kitchen, praise him. That reinforces the positivity of good behaviour, especially those who lean towards empathetic behaviour. If I get hurt in the house, my daughter immediately runs to the kitchen and asks someone to help her with the ice pack from the refrigerator and she promptly places it where I got hurt. I praise her by calling her ‘considerate’. She asks me what does considerate mean and I tell her when she cares about someone else, especially when they’re hurt or sad. 

Sometimes using big words and explaining too much may not prove as effective. This is where the old adage, “Actions speak louder than words”, come in that help drive home the point in the most effective manner. 

“I think it is very important for parents to teach Empathy to their kids from a very young age. Things like talking through how they feel, their emotions, appropriate and inappropriate reactions based on behaviour helps. You can also teach them through stories and role play, respect their emotions and feelings, inculcate a sense of morality, acts of kindness, helping others feel better, using empathy maps and it is very important for teachers in school to be actively involved as well,” adds Dr. Sunita Rajani, Paediatric Gastroenterology, London.

Tanya Munshi

Contributor: Tanya Munshi

Writing Mentor & Founder of The Lifestyle Portal.

For Kinderpass.

The Lifestyle Portal

Tanya is a graduate in Sociology from Sophia College, Mumbai, a post-graduate in Communications and Media from SNDT Women’s University in Mumbai and holds a Master's Degree in Journalis & Mass Communications from Chandigarh University. A former writing mentor and a seasoned lifestyle writer, Tanya writes columns on The Lifestyle Portal of life and living.

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