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Want to raise a child who stands up for the little guy? Teaching empathy is key to developing emotional intelligence. Clinical psychologist Michelle Nortje shares how you can do this.
Bullying and aggression in schools are becoming more and more common experiences for children. Additionally, in a consumer-driven society it is often one’s own wishes and wants that take preference over helping others. Teaching empathy is one early intervention that help prevent these issues from becoming a more rigid societal problem. The family system is the ideal context in which a child can learn about empathy, in order to grow up into a person who cares for, and shares with, others.
Seeing the world through someone else’s eyes
Empathy is what happens when someone thinks about the thoughts, feelings and experiences of another. The capacity for empathy, kindness and concern for others is vital for a child’s moral development, and so that they can establish mutually fulfilling relationships. Fundamental feelings of concern for others are seen in small babies – a baby may show signs of distress when their mother is feeling sad by also crying or becoming restless. More genuine forms of empathy are seen in children as they enter toddlerhood from 18 to 24 months – a toddler may show distress or guilt when they break a friend’s toy. While the instincts are there, children begin to learn fundamental moral lessons during the first two years of life. This is the ideal time to focus on supporting your child’s moral development.
Give to understand
An active way to help strengthen one’s child’s growing capacity for empathy is through the actions of charity and prosocial behaviour. The values of charity lead to actions of caring – being generous and giving of one’s time and energy to help others. Here are a few simple ways you and your child can develop significant values of helping, sharing, expressing concern, comforting, compassion, responsiveness, gratitude and social awareness.
Charity starts at home
Before children can practice empathic behaviour in their own communities and larger contexts, they need to have space and support to practice these behaviours within the family home. The value of helping others can be facilitated in ordinary daily routines and chores. For example, washing dishes after meals and tidying away toys after playtime can become an opportunity for vital family interaction, sharing of tasks, and teaching respect and gratitude for one’s family members, food and belongings.
Be the change you want to see
Children very often learn by observing others. It is therefore important that parents model the behaviour we wish our children to show. This can start in very small but important ways in the home. Demonstrate manners, politeness, generosity, gratitude and forgiveness. If we cannot embody ideals of tolerance and caring, then we cannot expect our children to behave in such ways.
Give feelings words
An important aspect of empathy is to understand what other people think and feel. Small children need some help in learning the vocabulary that matches different emotive states and nonverbal cues. Making masks of different facial expressions, playing with their own faces in the mirror and labelling their own feelings on a regular basis, helps teach children about how others may be feeling, and then responding appropriately. In his book Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice (2000), Martin Hoffman explains that empathy and morality can be fostered by explaining to a child why their behaviour is wrong as well as emphasising how their behaviour has affected other people.
Make it a family task
Using time to volunteer as family is an additional way to spend time together as a family, while also adding value to your community. For example, a family trip to the park can be followed by teaching your child about protecting the environment and picking up any stray litter in the area.
Get your child involved in the decision-making
Asking your child for ideas for a volunteering activity not only helps ensure their interest, but it also shows them that they are valued and included members of the family, no matter their age.
Focus on time, not money
Although many charity organisations require donations to keep functioning, small children aren’t personally involved when merely donating money to a charity. Giving children the opportunity to be involved directly in these organisations is a more hands-on way to help them help others. For example, reading to the elderly or helping to set up at a jumble sale.
Make sure it’s something age-appropriate that your child is interested in
Each child has their own strengths and abilities. Helping your child use her strengths in charitable settings will not only help others, but also boost your child’s confidence and self-esteem. For example, if your child is skilled at playing a musical instrument, you could maybe arrange a small recital at an orphanage or children’s hospital ward. Volunteer activities should, however, always be age-appropriate. If your child is a more sensitive child, then be mindful of what experiences may be too emotionally taxing. For example, for some children, seeing others who are very ill may be difficult for them to manage.
The road is long
Empathy is a capacity that we can all keep building on – even as adults. By helping our children become more generous and thoughtful members of society, you as parents will also be able to create more meaningful interactions with your children and your larger community.
Want to help? Find specific charities in your area: