I always wondered how do parents help, develop empathy in kids? How do children understand what is right and wrong?
I have a colleague who is a new mommy of a one-year-old boy. When she resumed work after maternity leave, it was difficult for her to leave the son back home and come to the office. He cried endlessly when she left for work.
Initially, she would sneak out quietly from the house. Later she realised, this won’t make her son habitual to the fact that she isn’t around always. She started to put a habit of saying ‘bye’ to him.
It’s been six months now and her son doesn’t cry anymore. Instead, he happily says bye to her. However, now she is upset about his apathy (disinterest).
How did he realise, her mom stays away for some time and will come back later in the evening. Maybe this habit of his will tomorrow make him empathise with his working mother or women in his life. It has something to do with empathy, let me explain.
What is empathy?
It is a close synonym to sympathy. But the difference between empathy and sympathy is that to empathise means to understand and share feelings, where one can relate to another person’s plight by putting themselves in their shoes. When one shows concern about others situation or feelings or emotions, you empathise with the person.
Another big difference between empathy and sympathy is…In empathy you feel the same emotions as the other person, you feel helpless too. In sympathy, you do not ‘feel’ their emotions and you focus on ‘solutions’.
For example: If a friend of your child lost a parent, then your child feels sorry for his/her situation- sympathy.
But if your child allows one of his parents to be as friendly as the friend’s parents without being jealous of his friend getting more attention than him- can be a sign that he empathises with the friend.
Why is it important to develop empathy in kids?
Developing empathy in kids is nurturing emotional intelligence. It is very essential in today’s world because;
Children grow out to be rational and less-judgmental about others and it reduces the possibility of bullying.
- Strengthens relationship and bond between two humans.
- It encourages the ability to understand others
- Helps in problem-solving.
- Builds the capacity of tolerance and acceptance in one.
How to make your children empathetic?
Step 1: Be a good listener:
Parents have to be a good listener. My mother heard me out always. I would share all my school stories including happy times, sad moments if I envied someone in my class or didn’t like somebody in my class.
Tip: One more thing, a good listener has to be less opinionated, this makes the other person feel comfortable in sharing.
This practice of hers has helped me in sharing my feelings and emotions with her. Till date, she is the first one to know about my feelings. It has built our relationship stronger.
As a result, I have developed the skill of listening to others patiently and without imposing my opinions on others.
Step 2: Don’t ignore children’s feelings, emotions or opinions:
The best way to win your children’s emotion is by respecting them when they are ‘emotional’. If you believe, they need to be corrected, or if you believe they are creating a mountain out of a molehill, take it up later. Boiling water does not reflect, it deflects. Similarly, when their emotions and their beliefs are at a boiling point, any and all attempts to correct them will be deflected. Tell them that to feel what they are feeling is valid and natural.
Step 3: Simulate situations and help them to think about what they can do in those situations:
If you are bad in striking a conversation or don’t know how to explain things to your child, then take help of films, storybooks to simulate situations. Films are a great way to start a conversation about feelings and understand what your child thinks about a particular situation.
Step 4: Don’t be judgemental:
Help your child not to rush into conclusions. How can you do that? Read below;
My colleague helped me explain this step-through simple practice. One day her 7-year-old son came to her and told that one of his friends wore a creased shirt which looked dirty.
-What did my colleague do? She gave alternatives to him. Aise bhi toh ho sakta hai?
She said maybe he forgot to iron it or he was adamant on wearing the same old shirt- like you do. Or else he didn’t have spare clean clothes to wear today. She didn’t conclude it by saying he might have come from a poor family or doesn’t have clothes.
Give your children options and probabilities of different aspects and factors that could have possibly led to a certain behaviour or a situation. ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’-teach them to not rush to a conclusion. Allow them to think over different circumstances.
Step 5: It’s okay!
They should be told- ‘it’s okay!’ It is okay to feel angry but their anger shouldn’t hurt them or others.
It is okay to not talk about things immediately, but do share what you felt when you feel better.
It is okay to have a different point of view- but don’t invalidate others, because every opinion is enlightenment about the topic.
Step 6: Practice before you preach:
Mahatma Gandhi had said,
The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.
- Discourage children from shooing away street animals. It will make them animal-phobic and create a negative feeling about them.
- Don’t restrict them to play with street animals (of course take care that the animals don’t harm them).
- Giving water or food to animals is good practice. It will help them learn caring and sharing- part of empathy.
Step 7: Make them feel important:
For developing empathy in kids, this step is the most important. Don’t say- tum bacche ho, nahi samjhoge. Maybe, they won’t be able to contribute but they will feel valued. They will learn a lot by observing you ideate and solve.
My parents always allowed me to contribute to brainstorming activities about household issues.
I was in Std II when one day my school supervisor had called me and asked to inform my parents to pay the school fees. I was shocked to know that my parents had not paid the school fees. Plus, I was infuriated because I was picked in the class for this and I felt humiliated.
I came back home with anger and shouted at my mother asking the reason for their irresponsibility. She told my father wasn’t paid salary on time for several months and they were trying to manage house needs as well. I learned we were going through financial crises.
My parents openly discussed it but they also made me believe that everything will be sorted with positive efforts. My mother did pay my school fees in the following week.
I was 7 years old when I saved Rs 1,500 by collecting coins in the house.
PS: I never got pocket money.
My parents bought groceries from that amount. With another saving, I was able to sponsor our trip to Shirdi. I inculcated a habit of saving. Also, now I don’t panic in a crisis like situation, I think of solutions. I don’t criticise my circumstances but stand strong holding everybody together.
I understood my family crisis, I helped my family to sail through the crisis, I didn’t judge my parents after I realised the problem. I felt empathetic towards them. Bonus point- I learned about savings…
Parents are the first teachers. Teaching means practising what we preach so that children can follow us.