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Empathy: How to teach this important life skill

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Empathy is defined as the ability to feel another person’s thoughts, feelings, and condition from their point of view, rather than from one’s own. By contrast, sympathy is pity for someone who is under duress. Selfless compassion is the best way to describe empathy.

But how do we get our children to the point of caring deeply about a classmate’s struggle or situation? Studies have shown that having a personal connection with any given person (or even having experienced a similar situation) increases the likelihood that a child will care, reach out, and show kindness.

The Harvard Graduate School of Education offers these 5 tips to encourage empathy in your child:

Empathy tips

1. Empathize with your child and model empathy for others.

Children learn what they live. If your neighbor recently had surgery, make a meal with your child and bring it over. Grab some extra packs of pencils for the classroom and have your child hand-deliver them. Disparaging remarks about another person’s poor appearance or parenting only hurts your child. Keep unkind remarks to yourself and they will too.

2. Make caring for others a priority and set high ethical expectations.

A great example of this is simply holding the door open for the stranger directly behind you. If you are buying your family’s week worth of groceries and a person behind you is holding 2 items, exercise some grace and ask them if they would like to jump in front of you to check-out.

Talk with your child about finding lost items. Yes, “finders, keepers” usually applies to finding $20 on a city sidewalk, but it does not apply to finding $20 in your child’s classroom. Talk about the differences between your classroom family and a busy public street.

3. Provide opportunities for children to practice empathy.

This could be as simple as expressing concern for a hurt classmate, regardless of whether they are friends. Instead of asking them, “How was your day?” Challenge them to name one kind thing they did or how they showed leadership qualities in their class or afterschool program.

4. Expand your child’s circle of concern.

Many parents have shied away from talking about current events. Children receive messages loud and clear when adults don’t talk about issues in plain sight. You need to be the first news source for your child. This enables them to see your facial expressions and displeasure at the way people are treating each other. Empathy is learned when a child sees a parent pained by a news story and teaches coping skills rather than avoidance. The issue has now penetrated their safe family circle, making the emotions real.

5. Help children develop self-control and manage feelings effectively.

Self-management is a life skill most adults are still working on. Adults do have the advantage of having learned to sleep overnight before sending a heated email to their boss. But children need to be a taught the skill set to deal with overwhelming emotions. They need to know that anger or frustration are not bad emotions, they just need to be channeled appropriately.

As you know, many humans are living a facade of, “everything is just great, my family life and career are perfect.” The world is far from okay right now and many among us are hurting. It is our job as parents to broaden the perspective beyond their own four walls.

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