This list is a piggy-back to my last post (see HERE), when a fight with a grocery cart led to a revelation on just how empathy-deficient we have become in America. My revelation further led to some unscientific (re: Google) research, and low and behold there are a lot of people who have had the same revelation as me, well before me. This is no surprise, because I’m often considerably behind the eight ball. Still, I’ve summed up my findings to help YOU get a head start in empathy boosting your own kids.
I know what you’re thinking, “Great, another list of orders telling me what a crappy parent I am.” It can be daunting, this parenting thing, and there seems to be an endless line of know-it-all’s telling us what we aren’t doing, what we should be doing, and how we are ruining everything. But, I think empathy is a great place to start parenting well. Having empathy permeates every other aspect of our kids’ lives. When we build empathy, we are providing automatic tools in coping, decision-making, resiliency and independent thinking. AND, it can be automatic, everyday and easy.
In other words, it’s being able to understand someone else’s joys, sorrows, struggles and successes. It’s helping someone who is burdened because you understand how they must feel. It’s putting your own feelings on the back burner. Not being a one-upper. Trying hard not to win every argument or every discussion at the detriment of someone else’s thoughts, beliefs and/or feelings. It’s compassion, it’s action, it’s a voice that talks to you and whispers what it must be like to be someone else. It’s the opposite of being selfish and apathetic. It is not simple sympathy, it’s more.
It’s an easy word to define, entirely a different thing to internalize and live. There are roadblocks in modern society preventing it (See HERE). But the important thing to remember is that we are born to empathize! We don’t gain it through hard work, but we can lose it through societal and familial pulls and influence. Thinking backward- all we have to do is maintain it, foster it over time, grow it, because it already exists. That’s where parents can do so much. They can combat all the tugs to be selfish, they can build empathetic thoughts and actions in their kids from the time they’re babies, so that when they are teens, when society says they are at their selfish peak (and they are), they have tools to combat their own selfish ways.
In all honesty, we are headed toward the point of no return, when it comes to building empathetic families (and in turn, an empathetic society). With each passing generation, we are witnessing more and more selfish behaviors, decisions and consequences (heck, we call the current generation of teens the “Me Generation” for a reason folks!). We are practically given every tool imaginable to foster selfishness (think selfies, social media, every gadget that makes like easier, etc.). At some point, as children become adults, as adults become parents, it will be virtually impossible to boost an already empathy void society. So, first and foremost, in order to teach your kids to BE empathic, you must BE empathic. If you are not, then you’ve got a longer row to hoe. And believe me, there are plenty of adults who know little of what it means to be empathetic and compassionate. Just go to Wal-Mart.
Still, I’d like to believe we aren’t there yet, so without further ado….
Here are my top ways to build empathy in your kids:
- Just talk. Talk through the eye rolls, through the backlash, through the criticism. Every time, any time, you can talk about how it must feel to be someone else, do it. When you see tragedy on the news, don’t turn it off (don’t dwell either). Talk about it in terms of what it must FEEL like to be that person. When you witness someone’s joy, comment how great it must feel. Talk, talk, talk. The more thoughts that are put into their heads about feeling someone else’s emotions, the more their brain will begin to do so naturally.
- When they do wrong, point out the impact to others. So they swept all their crap under their bed and called it cleaning? Talk about how it adds extra work for you. So they won’t stop arguing over petty things like who gets the pleasure of emptying the dishwasher? Talk about how each child must feel to be yelled at, and how their yelling might set the tone for everyone in the house, including a parent who is already stressed over a heavy workload. When they lie, discuss how lying can snowball and hurt others unintentionally.
- Notice others doing good. Watch people and their actions, everywhere you go. Point out to your kids the acts of kindness and generosity that you witness. On the flip side, go ahead and point out missed opportunities, too. Make sure they see empathy in action taking place around them.
- Watch movies and shows that show compassion and emotion. One thing I’ve noticed in American cinema and TV is that we’ve moved into a realm of topics and scripts that almost always include selfish story lines that are trite and perpetuate narcissistic attitudes and behaviors. Counter what they are watching with sprinkles of substance that demonstrates real compassion, heartache and achievement against real odds. Go ahead, it’s ok for them to see and feel pain. Examples include:
- The Patriot
- Band of Brothers
- Shawshank Redemption
- Here Comes the Boom
- The Pursuit of Happyness
- Pay It Forward
- Schindler’s List
- Coach Carter
Don’t assume an R rating means they can’t watch it, especially if it portrays real events, accurately. Kids need to know that there was, is and will be evil doers in the world that hurt others, and that there was, is and will be good people combating those evil-doers.
- Pay attention to music. Listen, really listen, to today’s music (especially rap) and you will find it is riddled with selfish themes of drugs, sex and violence. A “tame” radio-edited song might will still portray a selfish theme. When my 5 year old started singing along to “I Want to be a Millionaire, so f-ing bad”, I started turning my radio almost exclusively to Christian music, and now love that my kids sing along to songs about compassion and empathy. At the very least, talk about what your kids (and you!) listen to on the radio, and how music doesn’t always reflect accurately the way we should behave.
- Do good and let them see you doing it. Small things, like returning an empty cart sitting in the parking lot of the grocery store, helping an elderly person with heavy bags, paying a toll for the person behind you, opening doors for others, making a favorite dish for a sick relative, sending cards on non-birthdays to cheer someone up, doing random acts of kindness for your spouse (that one is crucial), dropping off cans of food at the local food pantry, etc. It doesn’t have to be grandiose, but it should be often. Sprinkle in bigger “do-good” projects throughout the year, like getting involved in a community yard sale, volunteering at church on a big project, making crafts for your local hospital, etc. Let them see you do good, and invite them to join you (if all else fails, force them to join you by giving them a ridiculous choice like “Help me with this project or clean your room”). And debrief afterward, always. Talk about how it makes you feel to help others.
Need help on ideas? See this.
- Talk about history. Believe me when I say (as a former history teacher) that history is not a priority in schools right now. When we don’t learn about history, we are robbing ourselves of more than just empathy skills, but I won’t go there, here. I will only say that when kids know more about the past, they have more empathy for those around them in their present. When kids understand that real people suffered through real things like the Civil War and the Holocaust, they build empathy. When kids know that others paved the way for their own freedoms and comforts, such as the Civil Rights Movement or Women’s Rights, they have more empathy. Don’t assume your local school is doing their part in teaching about the past. They try, but they often fail. Take them to museums (kicking and screaming), watch historical films, talk about all that you know about the past (and if you don’t know much, learn along with them), and do so in terms of the human toll, tragedy and triumphs of specific historical events.
- TRAVEL, don’t just vacation. If you are fortunate enough to enjoy a yearly family vacation and/or extended weekends away, go for places that are not just self-centered fun (like Disney, or the beach, or an amusement park), but discover places that are fun and provide an education about the world in which THEY WILL LIVE IN and be a part of. For instance, I just returned from an extended weekend at a Lake Resort in Maryland. Sure, there was plenty of self-indulgence such as eating, drinking, games and boating. But we also went hiking and toured a mine shaft where people toiled days and months to only meet an early death due to lung disease. Morbid? Sure. But our kids learned that people worked. Hard. To provide a necessary fuel for others. If you choose the beach (like we do), make it a priority to do at least one good thing for others that week- like a small food drive for the local food pantry or spend a rainy afternoon making no-sew blankets for the local homeless shelter. While vacationing, give them a day at the water park in exchange for visiting a local museum that might illustrate something historical. And if you are extremely fortunate to travel outside the country, spend time in a 3rd world community and take stock at how fortunate you are to be able to go home.
- Verbally differentiate 1st world problems (oh dang, my iphone just got wet) from 3rd world problems (another day of walking 5 miles for clean water). Anytime your kid experiences a problem, try to subtly point out the difference between their problem and what 99% of the world experiences as problems on a daily basis. When real tragedy hits (and it will), they will be better prepared to handle it, and in the meantime, hopefully they begin to feel compassion for others who have it far worse than them, on most days of the year.
- Finally, show gratitude in everything. This one is tough. We are constantly bemoaning our lot in life. I lost my keys, my car got a dent, the dishwasher is never emptied, my husband is a grump. We forget that our verbal complaining fuels their selfish ways. They follow your cues, don’t ever forget that. So when you are inclined to complain about the latest petty thing that is driving you crazy (why can’t they keep their rooms clean?), pause, stop, and at the very least, combine your complaining with a statement of gratitude. The cat is now using my sofa as it’s personal nail sharpener? While I discover ways of curbing this nasty cat habit, let me say that I am so fortunate to have that lovely new sofa, and the fuzzy blanket that goes with it. Fake it if you have to.