What is empathy? What are the benefits to your child and their environment if they grow up able to feel empathy? How can you help promote empathy in your child? And what are the dangers of non-empathy?
Empathy is the ability to share another person’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in their situation. Empathy is deeper than sympathy (often mistaken for the same quality) because it goes beyond an expression of care or understanding. Someone who is empathetic is metaphorically able to put themselves into another person’s shoes and experience their pain, suffering or joy. Empathy is a quality that requires a high level of self-awareness in order to deal thoughtfully and sensitively with others.
Children and young people who are empathetic are more likely to succeed at school and consequently in their careers. They tend to be socially more confident with a healthy level of self-concept. Employers across markets are increasingly seeking candidates for jobs who possess high levels of emotional intelligence (in addition to suitable skills for a role) because these candidates demonstrate strong communication skills, are good at building relationships and more likely to have a positive influence on a team. Empathy is widely recognised as one of the most important qualities a leader in any field can possess. An empathetic leader is thoughtful as well as intellectually competent. These days, someone’s Emotional Quotient (EQ – measure of empathy and levels of self-awareness) is as important as their Intellectual Quotient (IQ).
Empathy is a skill children can learn
The good news is that empathy is a skill children can learn. It is a quality that any child’s first teachers – their parents – can encourage from a very early age, building on an infant’s natural awareness of the emotions of others around them.
From birth, a baby might become distressed if they hear crying and smile if they hear laughter. At a few months, they are able to copy the emotions they see on their caregiver’s face.
By about one year, a child begins to exhibit ‘pro-social behaviour’. This is when a toddler responds to the emotion of another and takes action to try to make them feel better. For example, you may see your child attempt to comfort a distressed child or parent with a pat, a cuddle or by handing them a toy in an attempt to make them feel better. From about 18 months, they offer comfort more frequently, demonstrating the early signs of empathy.
As with adults, some children are naturally more empathetic than others at a younger age, with studies revealing that girls tend to demonstrate empathy earlier than boys. Avoid imposing unrealistic expectations on your child however. Remember that in young children empathy is unlikely to be shown consistently. They may offer a cuddle one day yet seem completely dispassionate by someone’s misfortune the next! This is perfectly normal. What is important is that you offer praise when your child does show empathy. Tell her how pleased you are that she was kind. The more you praise, the more likely your child is to repeat this behaviour.
If you want to instil empathy in your child then one of the keys to successfully achieving this is to encourage open communication within your family. Talk about your feelings, about how your child’s behaviour makes you feel and ask them how they feel. A child who feels safe to communicate openly develops emotional fluency and consequently, is better able to handle different kinds of relationships. Picking up on cues to responses in conversation; being able to adjust our emotional state and language to harmonise with what another is feeling is one of the most important skills we can learn. In fact, I believe if more emphasis was placed on developing this skill, we would see a lot less bullying in the school playground as well as cyber bullying, an increasingly prevalent practice.
Use Digital Media Responsibly
The Internet, as well as television, cinema and social media can play a very positive role in helping to build empathy in audiences. For example, documentaries about nature and other cultures open up the globe, connecting us with people who live very different lives from our own, informing us about animal habits and the state of the environment. This helps us to understand the fear, hunger and pain that so many people are suffering or the damage we are doing to the habitat of many animals.
However, if not used responsibly, computers and the Internet can deaden the development of empathy. The increasing popularity of often very violent video games encourages children and young adults to participate in acts of violence with no consequences and to become desensitised to the feelings of others.
Studies carried out on the impact of violent video games have generally found that they promote:
- Acceptance of violence: Frequent exposure can impact a child’s perception that some types of violence are acceptable, even entertaining
- Desensitisation: Children, especially boys, can become desensitised to violence after prolonged exposure
- False messages: The message of many of these games is that there are no consequences for violent acts
- An imbalanced perspective: Games rarely provide the perspective of the victim, consequently impeding the development of empathy in children and teens.
Ensure your children are not exposed to too much violence, either on YouTube, in video games or in movies. As your children become more socially active, make sure you are able to monitor the communication they have with others on the Internet, whether Facebook or other social networks. These are forums where children can be very unkind to one another and without face-to-face communication, there appears to be little consequence to that behaviour.
Ways to instil empathetic characteristics
We all want our children to grow up happy and successful in whatever they choose to do. Above all, including all academic skills, the development of empathy is the skill that is most likely to enable this. Here are different ways to expand your child’s worldview as you instil empathetic characteristics:
Visit different places. Let your child see how other people live. You don’t have to go far. You can even go on a round-the-world tour without leaving Singapore! Visit different restaurants that give your child a variety of eating experiences. Eat off banana leaves, use chopsticks, enjoy English fish and chips, sit on the floor in a Japanese restaurant. Talk about different food and the different places they come from.
Watch travel shows and documentaries
There are a number of wonderful shows on television these days which take you to far-flung places. My son and I enjoy watching By Any Means on Nat Geo Adventure, which follows a man as he travels around the world using local transport.
Books are a wonderful way to open a window to other cultures and lands. Reading together also gives you the opportunity to discuss any questions your child may have.
Care for a pet
Taking care of another living creature, having to be aware of its needs, helps children develop a great deal of empathy.
Talk about differences
Do not shy away from talking about subjects such as skin colour or different cultural customs. Children are very innocent and may query why someone looks or dresses differently. Answer them honestly. Explain that people in different places look different, eat different food, wear different clothes and speak different languages.
If you are interested in different people and places, enjoy the diversity of this planet and demonstrate kindness and care towards others, your children are very likely to follow suit.
Empathy connects us with others, enables us to communicate better and enjoy more trusting relationships. Make sure you give your child the time and opportunity to talk to you about their feelings, while encouraging them to be in tune with the feelings and emotions of others. Supporting your child through the development of these characteristics will help create a ripple effect outwards, something that can only be positive for their community as a whole.