What Kids Need: Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the deep feelings of another person.  It often happens when a good friend listens to you when you’re frustrated, and they can rephrase what you’re saying with the same passion, emphasis, and understanding.  I’m going to say that kids do this very well; I would say today’s youth do this better than most of us.  This type of deeper form of respect starts in the family and then moves into daily life.  If the family allows put-downs or teasing of another’s feelings, then empathy will be seen as a weakness, as something to be hidden.  It can creep into the family in the form of put-downs, insults, name-calling, or bullying and can tear a family apart quickly.

I have a brother who is seven years older than I, and he used to tease me and used put-downs regularly.  My parents would occasionally say something, but often they would let it go because they knew my brother was kidding.  But I did not know that, and often felt like he was judging me or somehow saying that my expressions were lower than, or inappropriate somehow.  We must remember that what is just kidding to an adult may well not feel that way to a child or young adult.  Empathy can be developed to become a real asset for your family.  It is an outstanding quality when genuinely communicating with someone. Communication development is key to success at so many levels.  Families can assist with the development of this asset by discussing difficult situations, i.e., homeless people in the community.  It is beneficial to sit with your family and discuss what may have happened to get them to where they are now.  How do you think they feel?  So many questions can be developed to help with the alignment of feelings toward the homeless population and their difficulties.

Finally, when your kids hurt others’ feelings, discuss how the other person must feel with them.  Help them to anticipate that although they may be angry or frustrated with someone, hurting their feelings doesn’t solve the situation.  I like to discuss with kids a point from Stephen R. Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, where Stephen talks about the fact that as we grow older, there is a space between stimulus and response and in that space there is the freedom to choose.  We all, always have the freedom to choose our responses, even when we receive our ultimate insult, whatever that may be.

I challenge you to sit down this week with your kids and do some work on empathy.  I think you’ll find that kids already do this quite well.  By asking them questions around empathy, you can develop a close relationship with them and their feelings.  This skill will be with them all their life and will be another tool in their life toolbox.

Yours for Better Parenting,

Rich