What is Empathy?
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, empathy is:
the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.
In other words, empathy is the ability to understand the feelings and emotions of another person. It is the ability to “put yourself in their shoes” and try to understand what they are going through emotionally.
Why is Teaching/Modeling Empathy Important?
Why should we as parents and caregivers explicitly teach and model the concept of empathy? Because Empathy is a LEARNED trait. Everyone is born with the ability to feel empathy but many of us need to develop skills in order to understand and feel sensitive towards the feelings and emotions of others.
Ways to Teach Empathy
Talk About Feelings–Teaching our children about feelings, and how to name those feelings, is the most critical skill in developing their emotional intelligence. When you or your child are feeling a particular emotion, name it for them. Help them to understand when they are feeling joy, sadness, jealousy or anger. Once they understand these feelings in themselves, help them to recognize them in others. Practice role playing with them about how to react when people they interact with feel a certain way. My daughter has a My Mood, My Choices flipbook. This book not only teaches her to name her emotions but gives her some ideas for activities she can do to help change the emotion or celebrate it. She now gives suggestions to the rest of the family for things they can do when they are feeling a certain way. This is a great example of empathy.
Model Empathy–You are your child’s greatest teacher! Children are watching all that we do and often model the behaviors they see in us. It is important for adults to model empathy so that children can learn to grasp this important skill. Show empathy and compassion to the people you meet and do kind things for others. Most important (and sometimes the hardest), show empathy for the people living in your home. When your child is feeling emotional, try to empathize with them and remember what it was like when you were a child. When you are feeling a certain emotion, help them to empathize with you.
Help Others–Volunteering and helping people in need is a great way to help your children to develop empathy. Recently while serving lunch in the park to the homeless, a man came up to the backside of the table and asked for some water. The two adult volunteers he approached stood frozen, unsure of how to answer him. Turning to see this interaction, I jumped in and said, “Of course sir,” and grabbed him a bottle of water. My son said, “Mom you broke the rules, he is supposed to wait in line and get his lunch and water just like everyone else. I took both kids aside and said, “Did you see his face? He desperately needed water and I was in the power to be able to grant that basic need. Imagine how you would feel if you were desperate for water and I said you had to wait in line for 20 minutes to get it.” Our time volunteering gives us so many teachable moments in empathy and kindness.
Read Stories and Put Yourself in Their Shoes–Reading quality stories to your children (no matter their age) is a great way to help them to practice the skill of empathy. Throughout the story, encourage your child to “put themselves into the shoes” of the character and ask what they think the character may be feeling. We have a great list of books to help talk about empathy with your kids. Check out our Kids in Service Book Corner.
Practice Mindfulness–Teaching our children to be mindful is an important skill in helping them to get in touch with their own feeling and emotions. Learning to be mindful will then help them to learn to be compassionate and empathetic to others. Kids in Service has many resources for helping you and your family to create a practice of mindfulness in your home. Click HERE to find those resources.
The kids and I recently stumbled upon Leon Logothetis and his work in kindness. Leon is nicknamed the Kindness Guy and has incredible stories and adventures to share that all surround kindness. The kids and I started watching his show The Kindness Diaries on Amazon Prime (season 1, season 2 can be found on Netflix). We all LOVE this show and I have not seen an episode yet that has not left me in happy tears. It is a wonderful show to prompt rich discussions as a family around empathy, kindness and gratitude. I’d recommend it for kids ages 6 and up and most definitely for ALL TEENS and ADULTS!!
I just ordered got my hands on this book and can not put it down!! I highly recommend it for parents of ALL ages! Here is what the publisher says about it: Teens today are forty percent less empathetic than they were thirty years ago. Why is a lack of empathy—which goes hand-in-hand with the self-absorption epidemic Dr. Michele Borba calls the Selfie Syndrome—so dangerous? First, it hurts kids’ academic performance and leads to bullying behaviors. Also, it correlates with more cheating and less resilience. And once children grow up, a lack of empathy hampers their ability to collaborate, innovate, and problem-solve—all must-have skills for the global economy.
In UnSelfie Dr. Borba pinpoints the forces causing the empathy crisis and shares a revolutionary, researched-based, nine-step plan for reversing it.
Because of You–This website is for teens and it is a wonderful resource to show how their words and actions can affect other people. This site is full of videos and resources for parents and teens and a great way to discuss the topic of bullying and empathy with our teens. “By encouraging self-reflection and focusing on specific actions, our goal is to inspire this generation to create a more empathetic and inclusive culture around them.” –Beauseofyou.org
PBS Learning Media–This is another great resource for teens and parents. Here they have videos and resources that discuss empathy, gratitude, resiliency and kindness.