Posted: February 14th, 2011 by Michele Borba
Parenting advice to nurture our children’s empathy and compassion.
Several years ago, our youngest son brought home a note from his teacher asking for parent volunteers to chaperone a class field trip. His teacher, Cindy Hollinger, was encouraging her students to give up their Saturday morning to participate in a race called “Lauren’s Run” sponsored by the City of Hope.
The event was held in the memory of Lauren Zagoria, a three-year old child who recently died from cancer. Each racer would pay an entrance fee of a few dollars, and all the profits would go to pediatric cancer research. Volunteering to drive to that event was one of the easiest decisions I’ve made.
As we drove into the parking lot, each child was met by an adult volunteer who thanked them for taking time to help children with cancer get better. I watched children’s faces brighten as they recognized their efforts were appreciated and respected. I wished more children could have shared the experience.
The race was held and the children ran, trophies were awarded, a beautiful brunch was served, and all the children were thanked again for their time. Listening to my young passenger’s conversation on the drive home was the greatest affirmation on why adults should encourage kids to serve others. “It was fun,” they said, “because we helped Lauren.” Another child expressed everyone’s sentiments, “Maybe now other kids won’t have to feel so sad and hurt so much.” Before they arrived back home, they’d all pledged to run again next year, and they did.
Those children exemplified what it means to have empathy: That day they were able to put themselves in Lauren’s shoes and imagine how she felt. That day, the students ran not for themselves, but to help Lauren. And, that day they won the best kind of victory: the triumph of knowing that their caring actions can make a difference.
Helping our children appreciate other people’s feelings and needs cannot be taught in a few short lessons. Your child gradually moves from his egocentric “always thinking about me” perspective to one in which he not only cares about the other person, but can feel and understand the other person’s point of view. And you can help stretch that growth.
Secrets to Raising Kids with Strong, Caring Hearts
Research tells us empathy is definitely a trait we can develop in our kids. Here are a few simple secrets to help your child learn to feel for the views of others and develop a strong, caring heart.
Point Out Other People’s Feelings
Point out the facial expressions, posture and mannerisms of people in different emotional states as well as their predicaments is beneficial: it helps your child tune into other people’s feelings. As occasions arise, explain your concern and what clues helped you make your feeling assessment: “Did you notice Sally’s face when you were playing today? I was concerned because she seemed worried about something. Maybe you should talk to her to see if she’s okay.”
Switch Roles to Feel The Other Side
Michael was a special education student of mine who had difficulty understanding anyone else’s feelings but his own. One day he hurt another student’s feelings with his teasing, but I just couldn’t get him to understand how sad he’d made the other child. I spotted a wire hanger on the floor, quickly bent it into a large circle shape and improvised:
“Michael, stick your head through the hole and pretend you’re Stevie and feel just like Stevie feels. I’ll be Michael. ‘I started the role play: Stevie, your haircut makes you look dumb.’ How do you feel, Stevie?”
By making Michael switch places and pretend to be Stevie he finally understood Stevie’s hurt. I used a wire hanger as a prop for Michael to use in role playing the other child’s point of view.
You can help your young child act out the other person’s perspective using puppets, dolls, or even toy action figures. As kids get older you can just ask, “Switch places and take the other person’s side. How would you feel if you were in her place?
Imagine Someone’s Feelings
One way to help your child connect with the feelings of others is to have her imagine how the other person feels about a special situation. Suppose your child just wrote a get well card to her Grandma. Use the moment to help her recognize her grandmother’s reaction when she receives the card by pretending she’s the other person. “Imagine you’re Grandma right now. You walk to the mailbox, and when you open it you find this letter. How will you feel?”
You later can expand the imagination game to include people your child has not personally met: “Imagine you’re a new student and you’re walking into a brand new school and don’t know anyone. How will you feel?”
Asking often, “How would you feel?” helps kids understand the feelings and needs of other people.
Be the Caring Example You Want Your Kids To Become
Kids don’t learn to be caring, kind and compassionate just by us telling them about it. They learn it best through our own example. Every week or so, you might stop and ask yourself, “What deeds have I done this week that show my kids I value caring?”
Opportunities are endless: take a batch of cookies to the new neighbor, deliver old toys to the fire department that can be distributed to needy children, coach a sport to a group of kids, be a room parent in a classroom, bring a bowl of soup or a ready-made dinner to a sick friend, or make or purchase a baby blanket to bring to a family shelter. And always ask your child to accompany you on your missions of caring. It’s the best way to convey to our kids that caring is important to us and can make our world a better place.
Use Moral Discipline
Martin Hoffman, a world-renown researcher from the University of Michigan, aimed one of his most influential studies on empathetic children. He wanted to determine the type of discipline their parents most frequently used with their children, and the finding was clear.
The most common discipline technique parents of highly considerate children use is reasoning with them about their uncaring behavior.
Their parents’ reasoning lessons helped sensitize their children to the feelings of others, and realize how their actions may affect others. It’s an important parenting point to keep in mind in those moments when we confront our own kids for any uncaring deed.
Today more than ever, as our kids are often exposed to an unsetting world of violence, bullying and insensitivity, we must emphasize empathy. (Hint: please do watch your child’s media diet!) I’m convinced that understanding how someone else feels may well be the antidote that will help our children live in a more tolerant world and stop violence and peer cruelty.
The best news is empathy can be cultivated in our children. What better legacy to give your child: the gift of a strong and caring heart that you have nurtured? It’s a gift that will keep on giving—your children will pass on to their children-and to theirs. And you’ve touched eternity.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books. You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news about child development.
You can also find dozens of research-based and practical tips to raise strong kids from the inside out in my latest book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. For more evidence-based solutions on how to raise a kind-hearted child refer to the chapters on Insensitive, Intolerant, Materialistic, Hooked on Rewards, Swears, Whining, Back Talk, Poor Sport, Selfish and Spoiled. You will find dozens of solutions (believe me, dozens — the book weighs over two pounds but is designed as a complete reference guide for raising kids from sandbox to prom).
1. Begin by reviewing the signs and symptoms of the problem and then flip to the Stages and Ages section of the issue so you can match your child’s developmental stage to the issue.
2. Choose only one or two new solutions to use with your family for the next three weeks. Change is possible but takes time and commitment. Don’t give up! You’ll see a gradual diminishment of the older inappropriate behavior or attitude as the newer habit kicks in. Then voila – you’ll have reached your goal: parenting for real and lasting change!