Three Ways to Raise Empathic Kids So They Become Compassionate Adults. Considering how to make the children in our lives better people helps us reflect on how we ourselves can be more compassionate.
BY PATRICIA ROCKMAN AND EVAN COLLINS, SEPTEMBER 17, 2019, KIDS
In this series of articles, we have been examining how mindfulness can sometimes inadvertently reinforce the self-centeredness and self-absorption of our current times and how we may counter this through compassion in action. We need to remind ourselves that the true roots of mindfulness and compassion are intended to relieve the suffering of others as much as ourselves.
In exploring the ways that we can direct compassion to others, what better way than to consider children. Endeavoring to raise an empathic child who is attentive to others helps build a better community and counters the “me” culture that is so prevalent today. Further, considering how to make the children in our lives better people helps us reflect on how we ourselves can be more compassionate.
Michelle Borba is an educational psychologist and expert in parenting, bullying, and empathy, and author of many books on character development in children, the most recent being UnSelfie: why empathic kids succeed in our all-about-me world (Simon & Schuster, 2016). In her work, she outlines current research on empathy in children and how we might cultivate kindness and caring in kids at different ages. She cites studies that show teens score 40% lower in empathy and are 58% more narcissistic than 30 years ago. Along with this, research shows increases in school and internet-based cruelty and bullying along with more cheating and less moral reasoning. Borba talks about the “Selfie Syndrome” as a form of growing narcissism in children and teens characterized by self-preoccupation, entitlement, difficulty taking responsibility and criticism, and feeling above the rules. This syndrome appears to be at least partially tied to our high pressure, media-saturated, high-tech culture.
Teaching Kids Emotional LiteracyIf empathy is feeling another’s suffering and compassion is the desire to alleviate it then empathy is the gateway and what may be the antidote to the Selfie Syndrome (in our children and ourselves). And encouraging empathy begins with the development of emotional literacy: recognizing, labeling and managing both our own and others’ feelings. This core skill is especially important for boys who, in our hyper-macho culture, show lower levels of emotional literacy than girls.
Here are a few simple ways to begin helping young children learn emotional literacy:
Cultivating Perspective-Taking with KidsIn contrast to sympathy, in which one cares but does not necessarily feel another’s suffering, empathy involves perspective taking, wherein we begin to understand the thoughts, emotions, and needs of others, developing the ability to walk in their shoes. This skill paves the way for kindness, as well as supports learning how to compromise and resolve conflict. The component parts to seeing another’s point-of-view include paying attention to others through focused, attentive listening and reading non-verbal cues; identifying thoughts, feelings, motivations and intentions; and imagining the other person’s experience with consideration of its impact. For example, if a child hurts another by name calling or taking away a toy, you might ask, “How would you feel if your friend did that to you?”
Here are a few ways to cultivate perspective-taking with children:
Nourishing a Strong Moral CompassAnother core skill for encouraging empathy is building a strong moral compass. As adults, we model our own ethical codes and values for the children in our lives, and we articulate the values of our family and community. We also nurture and reinforce prosocial actions, like …. holding the door for strangers, volunteering in our community, helping a neighbor in need, donating our time or money, or going to a rally or demonstration. We are socializing our children with respect to what we consider right and wrong, focussing on both character and behavior; nurturing the traits of kindness, caring and generosity. When we praise our children for their displays of these behaviors, big or small, we reinforce the idea that their character and moral compass is as important as their scholastic, social and physical accomplishments.
Raising empathic kids who grow into compassionate adults is not easy, especially when so many currents in contemporary society work against a focus on others and the importance of emotional intelligence. it. With our cultural and political leaders increasingly, and unapologetically, acting in self-absorbed and self-serving ways, instilling in our children these skills of emotional literacy, perspective taking and developing a moral compass is one of the most radical, courageous, and hopeful things we can do for our future generations.
Jeff Stull DMin PhD
Dr. Jeff Stull is an Individual, Marriage and Family Counselor who enjoys assisting his clients in developing creative alternatives to everyday life, love and work challenges. As a Licensed Professional Counselor and Mental Health Counselor he has specialized trainings in Relationship Repair, Abuse Recovery, Adolescents, and Mindfulness. He holds certifications including Professional Counseling Supervision, Clinical Sexology, Professional Christian Counseling and Accelerated Resolution Therapy(ART). He serves his clients in Alpharetta, Cumming and Dahlonega, Georgia and all over the world via Skype.