Everyone has two types of friends. One friend will listen to your issues, but is just there for you to vent. The other is a friend who is able to understand your problems by relating to your point of view. Both friends are good friends, but the difference between these two types of people is the skill of empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Without empathy, we cannot connect with others effectively. It allows us to build stronger relationships with friends and family. Empathy is a skill that every parent has to learn and teach to their children.
As a parent, focus on your kid’s behaviors from their point of view. For example, if they are crying, do not focus on them being a “cry baby.” Instead understand that they are trying to communicate something and that may be the only way they know to get your attention.
Teaching empathy to our children is a long and laborious task. Unfortunately, in our extremely selfish and entitled society, it is obvious that parents are blind to their childrens’ lack of empathy. So how do we teach our children the skill of empathy? Developing empathy can be broken into two categories: Imitation and Understanding.
Empathy development begins in babies through imitation. Mirror neurons allow us to naturally imitate the facial expressions, emotions, reactions, and behaviors of those around us. Research has shown that young children who accurately imitate others are more likely to correctly determine the emotions of others as they mature. This is why it is so important to spend face to face time with your baby playing games like “Patty Cake”. As your child grows, gently use your hand to guide your child’s hand when necessary to ensure they know the right way to do activities (cleaning up toys, song motions, sports, etc). Remember, your child needs you, not your cell phone.
Empathy continues to grow through experiences. A life full of diverse experiences increases a person’s ability to understand others more clearly. When we encounter people with whom we have something in common, high levels of “feel good” hormones (dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins) are released in the brain, creating a positive connection. This is why it is so important to expose your child to a wide variety of activities, people, and knowledge. The more exposure you give your child, the better he/she will be at understanding different points of view and connecting with people.
Mastering empathy takes tremendous practice and patience. To raise an empathetic child, you must model empathy and begin teaching this skill to your child very early. It continues to develop through exposure to a variety of people and experiences. So do not be afraid to push your children to play games they do not find interesting, read books about things they do not like, and take them places they do not want to go. Help them build relationships with people who have had a variety of emotions and experiences. Also, expose them to people who live out similar values that your family has in diverse ways. This promotes understanding. It might be difficult and painful in the beginning, but the payoff is enormous!