Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Making a Difference through Empathy

How do we educate our children about essential character traits that will help guide them to make good choices?  What traits are important to foster in our children?

I was reading through this list of “amazing kids who make a difference” and was thinking to myself, what is at the heart of these children’s kindness and giving spirit? What is a trait shared by these children that contributes to their ability to make a difference in the lives of others?
I realized that it is Empathy.
Empathy is the ability to understand how someone else might feel; to put one’s self in “someone else’s shoes” and consider how another person is affected by their life circumstances and experiences. Empathy is essential. Empathy is at the foundation of qualities like kindness, respect, loyalty, and patience.
Many of the children in this list have seriously considered how someone else is feeling and, in turn, have taken action to improve the lives of others. Empathy can lead to taking initiative to help people; learning to be empathetic changes our behavior towards others. It’s important to teach kids how to be empathetic, but it’s also necessary to help kids realize that, once they understand how someone else might be feeling in a certain situation, they can actually make a difference and change those feelings through their own actions.
Children who have empathy are less likely to bully and more likely to intervene to stop bulling. It’s harder to hurt someone or standby and watch someone be hurt when we are tuning in to how they are feeling and how we would feel in a similar situation. 

It’s important to realize that empathy is a learned trait.
So, how do we teach our children to be empathetic?

1.      Don’t shush, discuss – In moments when children say or do things that could be hurtful to others, discuss the situation rather than simply telling them not to say or do those things. Discussing why their words or actions could be hurtful to others, a child can start to think about how another person might feel and how their actions contribute to those feelings.

2.      Model it  - If the adults in a child’s life model empathy, the child is far more likely to understand and acquire this trait. Talk through it and verbalize what you’re doing as you demonstrate empathy. For example, if you stop to help someone pick up coins that they have dropped while with a child, tell them afterward that you helped because the person may have been embarrassed or upset about dropping the coins, and helping that person to pick them up may have made them feel better.

3.      Praise it - Kids need to see themselves as capable of changing feelings, so when a child does something kind to another person, point it out and praise it! Make sure to be specific and mention the feelings involved. For example, “Annie looked really happy when you shared your toy with her. That was a very nice thing for you to do!”

4.      Ask questions – Asking a child to consider how someone else might be feeling is a good way to encourage empathy. Whether you are reading a story, watching tv, grocery shopping, or going for a walk, don’t be afraid to ask a kid how they think someone else might be feeling in a certain situation. For example, if you see a child being left out of a game, you could ask “how do you think this boy feels to be left out of the game?” or “how do you think it would feel to be left out of the game?”

Discussing situations where children are not being empathetic, praising children when they are, modeling empathy, and asking questions about feelings are all simple ways that we can foster the development of empathy in our children. If we are able to raise kids who have the ability to think about how someone else is feeling and in turn, treat that person with kindness and respect, we will have a whole generation of children who make a difference, in subtle and in big ways!

Written by: Shea Wood.

Dynamix: Team-Building for Kids and Teens, Since 2002.

Picture taken from Google Images:

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