Empathy is a big buzz word in parenting, child-rearing and 21st century skills at the moment. We all know what it literally means, i.e. to understand someone else’s situation or feelings by putting yourself in their shoes. We all know it’s a good quality to have, and one we should encourage our children to have. But how do you really put it into practice?
Show your own vulnerability
One of the things that most surprises children is when they realise their parents are not the demi-gods they always imagined, and I think this is particularly in Asian cultures. The stereotypical parent not only shelters their children from worries about things like health and finances, but focuses all conversations, questions and attention on their children. I went through my childhood blithely clueless that my parents lives didn’t revolve around just me. It never occurred to me to ask my parents how they were because it simply wasn’t part of the way we talked to each other.
Children need to learn, in an age-appropriate way, that you, too, have difficulties and concerns, which gives them the chance to show empathy towards you in a role-reversal that provides important lessons and experience in how to behave in society.
In the beginning, you may need to help them with how to do this, which can be as simple as, “How was your day, Daddy?”, “What can I do to help?” or “I’m sorry to hear that”. And then, when they do this, or you hear about them doing this with other people, it’s important to acknowledge and praise this, so they feel its value.
Model conflict resolution
Most parents have the natural instinct to protect their children from unpleasant experiences, including arguments or fights between themselves. However, it’s inevitable that your children will witness some of this (and I would argue, actually, it’s healthy for kids to see adults disagreeing verbally, even if it’s a bit heated). In such situations, the important thing is to resolve the conflict in front of your child i.e. acknowledging wrongdoing, apologising, and saying what you will do (or try to do) in the future.
Introduce charity into your child’s life
Here’s a little snippet of conversation between me and 5-year-old Alex when we passed a panhandler:
“Did that woman want some money?”
“Maybe she doesn’t have enough.”
“Do you have money?”
“Why don’t you give her some money? You have to share.”
I was left dumbfounded by this exchange, because of course, he was right, but not at the right age for me to talk about more effective ways to provide charity and the possibility of being scammed. I mulled over this for a while, and think my friend Catherine has the right idea about this.
She gives her sons pocket money, and they divide the money up into three categories – Save, Spend, and Give. Hand in hand with this is a discussion about possibilities of who to give the money to, and this can then be expanded into focused research online on charitable organisations, whether local, regional or international. Depending on the age of your child, you may also want to go into how to find out how legitimate these are.
Read books which encourage empathy
Books are a great gateway into conversations about the lives of others, so it’s a good idea to seek out books of different cultures and lives than your child’s own. Ones which we’ve looked at are:
Grace for Gus, by Harry Bliss
The Red Bicycle, by Jude Isabella and Simone Shin
Little White Duck, by Na Liu and Andres Vera Martinez
The Unforgotten Coat, by Frank Cottrell Boyce
The Arrival, by Shaun Tan
People, by Peter Spier
The Name Jar, by Yangsook Choi
At the Same Moment Around the World, by Clotilde Perrin
This Is How We Do It, by Matt Lamothe
The Heart and the Bottle, Oliver Jeffers
The Invisible Boy, by Trudy Ludwig
Mirror, Jeannie Baker
Ask your child questions, and encourage them to ask questions, especially ones that get them to imagine themselves in those situations – How would they feel? What would they do? How is it different from their lives? How is it similar, despite the outward differences?
Try hard things and value failure
Children have a tendency to avoid new situations and difficult tasks because most adults shower kids with praise which children then become addicted to. Besides the fact that we should encourage a growth mindset rather than a fixed one (read Carol Dweck to find out more), so that children associate failed attempts with opportunities for learning, failing more often will also make children more empathetic towards others who fail. If a child is always surrounded by peers who are privileged, well-supported and resourced, and groomed for ultimate success, they are more likely to view failure as laziness or a lack of intelligence. There is nothing less empathetic than an entitled, privileged person.
There’s so much emphasis on achievement and success, both in school and in life, that it’s important not to lose sight of the role that kindness and compassion play in making us human and humane. As parents, that’s something we have direct influence over our children, (as opposed to musical talent or an affinity for maths), and the more we bear that in mind and in our own behaviour, perhaps the less antagonistic and fraught our world would be.
Uma is a Malaysian mum who works in teacher education. She has a six-year-old son, Alex, and currently lives in Singapore.