Parents are children’s earliest and best teachers of empathy. Here are few ways you can nurture this skill in your child.
Empathy, or the ability to put oneself in the perspective of the other, is arguably the most important life skill our children can learn today. As humans, we’re hard-wired for compassion and have great capacity to demonstrate empathy. Have you ever encountered the phenomenon of one baby crying just because he’s in the vicinity of another one in distress? I remember my older son walking into preschool for the first time, initially happy but then bawling his eyes out when he saw his classmates in tears! It is the beginning of a crucial skill that psychologists call “pro-social behaviour” actions that are motivated by empathy such as helping, sharing, donating, co-operating which in turn, facilitates the development of a conscience.
We guide this inherent, pro-social behavior by moderating our children’s first playdates even when they’re as young as 6 months old. We gently teach them to “learn to share”, that “it’s not nice to talk like that” and that “hands are not for hitting”. Parents play a critical role in nurturing empathy in children. Through our guidance, children learn to build strong relationships, develop a sense of community and genuine care for others.
Here are 4 tips to develop empathy in your child
1. Model empathy and compassionate behavior
When your child talks to you, keep your phone or any other distractions away and really pay attention to what he/she’s saying. Be mindful of his/her presence, keep eye contact and mirror back the things he/she has shared with you. It’s essential to focus on being lovingly responsive when you converse with them. Demonstrate kindness in your daily interactions with others and explain to your children the importance of what you are doing.
2. Give opportunities to demonstrate empathetic behavior
Encourage your children to care for a plant or a pet if you have one at home. Show them how to be gentle and patient with them. If there’s a new baby at home, you can teach your older child how to care for him/her during bath or meal times. If Grandma is ill, give your child an opportunity to help with her recovery – even a handmade get well soon card with a big, warm hug would certainly help with that!
3. The power of imaginative play
When your child pretends to be a pirate, a princess or a superhero, he or she is learning to understand others. Pretend play can be a powerful tool to help children understand and relate to emotions outside of their immediate perspective. Story books, too, are a great way to develop empathic understanding. I’ve found the book ‘Bully’ by Laura Seeger, ‘Hands are for helping’, ‘Not hurting’ by Nora Gaydos and ‘I don’t want to be a frog’ by Dev Patty, fantastic conversational starting points.
4. Inspire goodness
Inspiring the spirit of giving, it helps children develop compassion. Get them to participate in food distribution to other children in low-income areas; assist in toy donation drives or help them plan a fun Diwali or Christmas event so that they can see the positive impact they have had on others for themselves. Take active interest in volunteering for causes so that your children can emulate you.