Building Empathy

Every parent would like her child to be kind. But it’s easy for kids to be lost in a world of privileges, with little awareness of the feelings of others. Neuroscience points to the fact that most human beings have the ability to empathize but it’s worthwhile to help kids develop this trait at a micro level. After all, humankind must be both, human and kind.

Saul Rosenthal, Ph.D., a developmental and clinical health psychologist, says that children are initially egocentric, meaning they are developmentally unable to distinguish between themselves and others. The world revolves around them. “Empathy is taught, but there are some apparent built-in precursors. If an infant cries, other infants will start crying. They are responding to a distress signal with distress of their own. An older toddler might respond to distress by offering a hug or a toy,” he explains.

Children who show empathy are more likely to intervene during a bullying episode because they can identify with the victim and are more likely to consider everyone more-or-less equal. Here are some ways Dr. Rosenthal suggests we build empathy in children:

Modeling: Much of interpersonal and social behavior is learned by observation. If we are empathetic towards others, that will be what our children experience as they grow up. If a child is hurt, a parent can respond with understanding and support. The child experiences that and grows up with empathy as the expected response. Contrast that with scolding a child or telling them that, “Big kids don’t cry!” Normal and expected behavior is how they themselves are treated.

Being an empathetic parent: How a parent acts towards others and responds to the child’s actions towards others is also important. If the child grows up in a home where making fun of or criticizing people is the norm, that’s what they will do. However, if the parent takes the time to express an understanding about others, that will help build empathy. For example, discussing with the child charitable giving or volunteer work can help create a developmental environment in which empathy is normal

Having a conversation: Helping a child feel what another person feels can help develop empathy. For example, if a child points out (as children will do) that a person walking down the street doesn’t have a leg, how we respond as parents sets an important interpersonal tone. We could hush the child and tell them it’s rude to point things like that out. That can embarrass the child or teach them not to talk about things that are atypical (which probably makes them stand out even more). Alternatively, we can ask the child how they would feel if they didn’t have a leg. That can lead to some interesting conversation and a potential developmental moment.