Empathy is the heart of a well-lived life. We all want to raise kids who are caring and concerned for others, who are confident in themselves, and yet understand that sometimes they, and others, will struggle. Easier said than done? Not necessarily.
Kids have to be cared about to care
There was a time when boys were taught to be ‘men’ at a young age by being told to ignore their own pain; to ‘suck it up.’ There have also been times and schools of thought in which parents were told not to coddle children, not to acknowledge their fears or anxieties because the acknowledgement would only fuel those emotions. Most of us now understand that both of these premises are wrong.
The only way children can learn to show empathy for others is if they experience it themselves, and see it modelled in the family. Raising children in a home in which feelings and hurts and experiences are shared, in a home in which people demonstrate caring and empathy for others, is the best way for children to learn. Care about them, understand their pain, and they will understand what it means to care about others.
Don’t dismiss because of age
It can be too easy as parents, and with the world of experiences we have built into our repertoire, to dismiss the feelings or experiences of children because they are minor in comparison with adult problems, or because we view them differently than our children. A broken heart at age 12 might be dismissed as a crush by an adult when to that child it is much more. A lost toy may seem insignificant to an adult when they forget to recognize the attachment or meaning that child may have placed on the object. Understanding your child’s emotions and experiences from their perspective, rather than your own, allows you to better respond and to show the empathy they need to see demonstrated.
Pets can be great teachers
If your family is at all animal oriented, and if you’re willing to commit to an animal for its lifespan, then a pet can be a great teacher for children in many ways. Children who bond with animals learn gentleness and love, learn about caring for someone other than themselves, and learn empathy.
In the structure of a household, a pet can become someone your child is responsible for, someone they must nurture and care for. Learning to tend to the needs of another, to care for that other when they are sick or scared, to rejoice in the achievements of that other…. those are the beginnings of empathy.
Teach kids to look beyond what they see
When your child comes home from school with a story about little Johnny spilling milk in his lap and the other kids laughing because it looked like he had an accident, don’t let it go. Ask your child how Johnny reacted, how he seemed to be feeling. Ask them to consider how they might have felt in a similar situation.
When they share a story about little Suzie who won’t talk to anyone and just plays by herself all the time and how ‘weird’ she is, help your child understand that Suzie is new to class and so perhaps shy or scared. Ask your child to remember a time when they were new to something, or stood out in some way and how they felt.
It is never too early to ask our children to put themselves into the shoes of others, to see the world through someone else’s eyes. And it is only when we do, when we take the time to help them see, that they begin to understand the world beyond their own needs and wants, and to act with kindness and empathy for others.
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