Empathy is at the heart of what it means to be human. It’s a foundation for good relationships and professional success. It’s key to preventing many forms of cruelty.
And where would we be without empathy in these times? Empathy is what binds us as communities and as a society, and it’s saving hundreds of thousands of lives as we battle the novel coronavirus. It is empathy that propels the legions of volunteers who are making protective equipment or shopping for the elderly and often the many people who are simply washing their hands, not to mention the health-care workers and others on the front line fighting this virus.
Empathy includes the capacity to take another perspective, but it is not just that. Some people are very skilled at taking other perspectives, but they may not care about others. Con artists take other perspectives so they can exploit weaknesses. At its core, empathy is also about valuing other perspectives and people. It’s about perspective-taking and genuine concern for others.
How can parents cultivate empathy in children during these times, especially when there are so many competing priorities? And how can they balance, and guide their children in balancing, self-care and care for others? The following are five guideposts based on research and the wisdom of practitioners.
1. Empathise with your child, and model empathy for others
Why? Children learn empathy from watching us and from experiencing our empathy for them. When we empathise with children, they develop trusting, secure attachments with us, which is key to their developing the inner stability needed for them to focus on and value others.
How? Empathising with our children takes many forms, including tuning in to their physical and emotional needs, understanding and respecting their personalities, taking a genuine interest in their lives and guiding them toward activities that reflect an understanding of the kind of people they are. During this pandemic especially, it is important to listen non-judgementally to their hopes, concerns and anxieties, and to acknowledge the importance of these feelings.
Children also learn empathy by watching. They’ll notice if we treat a grocery store clerk or a pharmacist as invisible or, instead, if we express gratitude to these people for the critical role they’re playing in protecting us.
Try this: — Get to know your child more deeply. Create space for children to talk about their concerns, and use this moment at home to get to truly know them. Ask questions: What people in our community do you respect and why? Who are you most concerned about? What have you learnt about yourself during this time? Do you find yourself appreciating things that you didn’t expect to appreciate?
— Demonstrate empathy. Model for your child what it means to be helpful to others during the pandemic, whether it’s preparing and delivering meals to a homeless shelter or an elderly neighbour or sewing masks. Even better, do these activities with your child.
— Engage in self-reflection and self-care. Try to find time to regularly engage in an activity — going for a walk, reading a book, meditating, singing, praying — that can help you avoid being swamped by stress, which can undermine your empathy. Because our children are stressed, too, they may push our buttons, which may erode our empathy, which in turn is only likely to exacerbate their stress and irritating behaviour. Reach out to friends and family members you respect — or to experts — if you find yourself getting caught in these downward spirals with your child.
2. Make empathy and caring family priorities
Why? If children are to value other perspectives and people, they need to hear from us that caring for others is vital. Harvard’s Making Caring Common research (mcc.gse.harvard.edu) indicates that even though most parents say that raising caring children is a top priority, most children aren’t hearing that message. Children are far more likely to report that their parents prioritise a child’s personal success more than caring for others.
How? Make caring for others a priority in your own actions and in your day-to-day interactions with your child, even if at times it requires your child to sacrifice and doesn’t make them happy.
Try this: — Help your children understand that the world doesn’t revolve around them. Expect your child to consider others, both people they know and people in the world who are suffering or risking their lives. Expect them to consider your needs and feelings. Don’t let them treat you disrespectfully or like a doormat.
— Expect children to pitch in. Ask your child to help around the house, especially now, when we’re all home together. “We’re all in this together” begins at home.
— Value empathy and caring in others. Notice with your child when someone exhibits impressive empathy — or shows a lack of empathy — either in your daily life or in a book or on television. Discuss why acts of empathy are important and why lacking empathy can be harmful.
3. Develop and nurture your child’s empathy muscle
Why? Children are born with the capacity for empathy, but it needs to be nurtured throughout their lives.
How? Learning empathy is like learning a language, an instrument or a sport: It requires practice and guidance. Regularly considering other people’s perspectives helps make empathy a natural reflex and, through trial and error, helps children get better at tuning in to others’ feelings and perspectives.
Try this: — Encourage your child to find ways to be helpful to those who are struggling or at-risk during these times, and explore with them what they might do for others that they would find meaningful, such as assisting a friend having difficulty with online schoolwork or writing a note to a neighbour.
— Discuss with your child ethical dilemmas that help them appreciate various perspectives, such as: “Should a hospital nurse or doctor keep working if they live with a family member who has an underlying condition?” “Should family members visit sick relatives if they might be exposed to the virus and might unknowingly expose others?”
— Hold family meetings when there are family challenges or conflicts, as there often are in times of stress. In those meetings, give children a voice, and encourage them to take the perspective of other family members. Listen carefully to your children’s views, and ask your children to listen carefully to the views of others.
— Ask your child to express appreciation and gratitude for people who have been helpful to them. You might ask them to express gratitude to a teacher, or to send notes to people whom they’re grateful for right now, such as grocery store clerks, police officers or health-care providers.
4. Expand your child’s circle of concern beyond family and friends
Why? Almost all people have empathy for a small circle of family and friends. It’s important to also focus on whom we have empathy for. Are we helping our children empathise with those who are different from them in terms of gender, race, class and other characteristics? Are we helping them empathise with people who may not be on their radar during the pandemic, but who face serious risks?
How? It is important that children learn to listen closely and attend to those in their immediate circle, and to also take in the big picture and consider the range of people who contribute to their lives. Children need to consider how their decisions affect members of a community as well as their country and the world. These times provide a powerful opportunity to help children understand how we are all linked and the responsibility that brings.
Try this: — Link daily actions with the collective good. Explain how actions such as social distancing and washing your hands can protect yourself and also others. Underscore with your child that all lives are equally valuable and that each one of us is responsible for all of us.
— Zoom out. Use newspaper or TV stories to start conversations with children about the hardships and challenges of people outside your community or those who may be different in some way. Talk about what people in other communities or countries may be experiencing during these times.
— Think about the invisible helpers. At dinner or bedtime, try to name with your child the unsung people who are helping and putting themselves at risk, such as hospital custodians and receptionists, clergy administering to the very ill, flight attendants, pharmacists, sanitation workers, construction workers who are building new medical facilities, National Guardsmen, food producers or food deliverers.
5. Help children manage destructive feelings effectively
Why? Even when kids feel empathy for others, many feelings — including envy, anger and anxiety — can block their empathy. So can stereotypes and prejudices.
How? Developing empathy is not just a matter of building the empathy muscle; it’s also a matter of helping children constructively manage these damaging feelings and stereotypes.
Try this: — Talk about stereotypes and prejudices. Encourage older kids to name stereotypes and prejudices that might be affecting how they or others are responding to people. Explain to kids that stereotypes and prejudices are common, but that we all have a responsibility to be aware of them so that we can reduce their harmful impact on others.
— Provide your children with strategies for dealing with stress and anger. Here’s a simple way to teach your kids to calm down: Ask them to pause, inhale to the count of four, exhale to the count of four and to repeat for 30 seconds. Practice when your children are calm. Then, when you see them getting upset, remind them about the steps, and do them together. After a while, they’ll start to do it on their own.
— Model constructive conflict resolution and coping strategies. Share with your kids, in age-appropriate ways, how you work through challenging feelings in your own life. You might share a time when you managed anger badly, and a positive way you managed anger, such as taking a walk or meditating, so that you could then express your feelings constructively.
— Richard Weissbourd is currently a senior lecturer on education at HGSE and at the Kennedy School of Government