4 Ways to Help Your Child Learn Empathy

Empathy is not an inherent character trait. Kids must practice being empathetic to become empathetic.
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Melanie Hempe
Empathy is a learned character trait. Children are not born knowing how to "feel" the feeling of others, rather they must practice it- a lot.

Your son shoves his friend down the slide on the playground, and the other boy falls face-first into the dirt below. Your daughter titters and giggles with her sister about what a friend is wearing. Hearing them, the girl bursts into tears.

What’s the problem? You’ve raised them in an atmosphere of love and acceptance, haven’t you? Then why don’t they seem to care how anyone else feels?

After a recent eye opening-discussion with neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Doan, I was reminded how important it is to help our children develop empathy. “You see, children are not born with the empathy pathway developed in their brains,” Doan said. “This is why toddlers want to drown kittens and hit their infant siblings over the head with their building blocks. Parents must teach them this life skill.”

The brain “becomes” what it “does,” and science tells us that empathy needs to be practiced to be well-learned. Nurturing such empathy is challenging in a media world that daily teaches our kids that sarcasm, bullying, and physical aggression are funny and even normal behavior.

What exactly is empathy? It is simply the capacity to understand, feel, and share the feelings of others in a sensitive way. This very important life skill must be learned early in childhood, and not surprisingly, parents are the best empathy teachers.

Here are some ways to start building empathy in your child’s world:

1. Model empathy often. Go out of your way to set a good example. Think of ways that you can physically show your children how you care for the feelings of others.

2. Talk about empathy frequently.  When you see other people demonstrating empathy, be sure to point it out. When you read a book to your children, discuss the examples of characters being kind to others in the story. Talk about times when you received empathy in your own life and what that meant to you. Ask your children to talk about a time when they received empathy from someone.

3. Limit isolating screen time. Since screenplay is extremely isolating and self-centered, it is nearly impossible to practice real empathy during video game play or social media use. Most games are competitive, pushing the players to “win at all costs.” In the world of social media, children learn that putting others down is funny and “normal.”  While some argue that certain pro-social games promote helping others, science tells us that helping someone in the virtual world is not the same as showing kindness and understanding face-to-face.

The bottom line is this: Children also need time to practice empathy; the hours of time spent on screens everyday can keep them from being aware of the needs around them, even obvious needs in the same room or household.  When your children are on screens, they miss valuable opportunities to practice empathy because they simply are not involved in real life! Finally, because screens give kids a sense of entitlement, such privileges as “owning” a phone too early can also be a huge roadblock to empathy development.

4. Practice sacrifice. Look for opportunities to sacrificially help others. From offering to help a family member with a household chore to volunteering time with a soup kitchen downtown, numerous opportunities are available. If your children never learn what it is like to give up something such as Saturday morning cartoons to help others or if they are never exposed to what real needs look like, learning empathy will be difficult for them.

Like most character qualities, empathy takes time to develop. There is no shortcut. Moving from the shallow connections made on screens to the deeper, real-life emotional ups and downs found in families will help your children strengthen the neuronal pathways needed for strong empathy. Look for ways to talk about caring for others and be sure to remind them to help their siblings and their pets. The best place to learn empathy is in our homes.

For more information on balancing childhood with screens, come to an upcoming Kids’ Brains and Screens Workshop. Visit www.familiesmanagingmedia.com.