What is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to feel what another person feels. It is a basic human emotion that we all experience at some point in our lives. Empathy can make us better human beings.
As I settle to write a blog on empathy, I am reminded of an email that popped up in my inbox many years ago. Here is a description of the image that the mail had. A mother taking her child to school comes across a man sweeping the streets. She immediately turns to her child and says “You must study hard otherwise you will end up like him.” Alongside is the image of another mother who looks at the same situation and says “Study hard so that you can help improve his life and the empowerment of their lot.” This is an empathetic insight demonstrated by a mother to her child.
“Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.”
– Oprah Winfrey
Let’s raise our children to be more empathetic decision makers which will eventually lead to a world with more kindness and humanism.
When do children develop empathy?
Empathy is thought to develop gradually from early in life, but can vary from person to person. Some experts believe that empathy begins developing around the age of two, while others believe it may not fully emerge until late childhood or even adulthood. Regardless of when it first develops, empathy is an important skill that can help us better understand and connect with others. It can also help us identify and address problems before they become too large or difficult to fix. While empathy is not always easy to summon, learning how to develop it can make us better human beings overall.
How does empathy make us better human beings?
When we have empathy for others, we are able to see things from their perspective. This allows us to better understand and connect with them, which can lead to improved decision-making skills. Additionally, having empathy can help us identify and address problems before they become too large or difficult to fix. By being more empathetic, we can create a more compassionate world that is better equipped to handle challenges and problems together.
Why Build Empathy in Children in the Early Years?
There are many reasons why empathy is important for children. Empathy makes it easier for children to relate to others and understand their feelings. It can also help them develop social skills and become better human beings. When children have empathy, they are more likely to be kind, understanding and supportive of others.
- Empathy means understanding someone else’s feelings or looking at things from another’s point of view. Children with empathy are more receptive to other’s feelings.
- Empathy is an important character trait that can be nurtured for children. It helps them develop stronger and more meaningful relationships than kids who lack empathy.
- Empathy creates greater tolerance and acceptance of others who are different from us.
- Empathy helps lend support to another person who might be afraid or upset. As a result they become better problem solvers and decision makers.
“Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world”
– Barrack Obama
How Can we Build Empathy in Children?
Walking in someone else’s shoes
To begin with, we must empathize with our own children and they should feel understood. Next, taking real life situations parents can frequently discuss how one might feel being in place of another. For example, if we see our children talking rudely to another person or being unfair/unkind, we can ask them how they would feel if someone spoke to them like that or behaved in a similar fashion.
You can use an empathy map to understand your feelings and actions along with the actions and feelings of others.
Use storytelling to build empathy
Children can be encouraged to relate to the characters inside a story or a TV show/ movie. By getting into the skin of different story characters they will end up practicing empathy for others.
While reading a book, they may be asked questions like –
What do you think character x is feeling right now?
Why do you think character x feels that way?
What about character y and z? If you were in their place, what would you do?
Learning to BE: Book Series
A book series that you can explore to help children apply empathy, kindness, love, selflessness, and other values in one’s daily life is The Learning To Be series by AdiDev Press. This wonderful series has three books, Service with Gurunanak, Peace with Buddha and Kindness with Mahavira. These books help make the wisdom of these great saints accessible and relatable to children, an even adults, of today
Use code NUTSPACE20
to avail of a 20% discount on these books (all books) by AdiDev Press
Use role-play to build empathy
Children should be encouraged to use role-play games and scenarios in their day to day playtime. This will not just build imagination but also help develop empathy. Playing a different role gives them insights into the role and responsibilities of the character they are portraying. For eg – pretend play games like teachers and students, doctors and patients, police and thieves, firemen and the house on fire, among others. These role-play games and scenarios will help them take a sneak peek into the lives of the characters they are playing. This will help them understand the emotions of these characters as well as the challenges they face.
Undertake service projects
It is important to draw the awareness of children towards helping others. They could be friends, relatives, family members, strangers or people / children who are less fortunate. Indulging in a service project as a family where children are active participants helps them experience the joy of giving.
Projects could include:
Service at an orphanage or homeless shelter– Donating books, preloved clothes and toys, organizing a food drive, visiting an old age home and investing one’s time doing activities there.
Helping a friend – Maybe you can help your friend learn a new skill – a skill that you may be good at.
Helping at home – Children could be encouraged to help out in home chores, like laying the table, cleaning the dishes etc.
Activities like these could be a great starting point to help children become compassionate and empathetic.
How Can Children be Taught to Resolve any Conflict through Empathy? Learn the 4C’s
Resolution to any conflict must begin with a dialogue that requires effective listening and expression of feelings on both sides. We must encourage children to express and share their feelings instead of holding them back. Effective communication leads to a strong and trustworthy relationship.
Call for help
Sometimes problems might escalate and the need arises for an adult to intervene. Children must be told that it is absolutely okay to ask an adult, or any trusted individual, for help. Often children shy away and repress their feelings because of fear and anxiety. In order to avoid this, there must be a strong communication between parents and their child, to begin with. Only then will children feel free to ask for help, if required.
Creative solutions and compassion
Suppose a child is being bullied at school and is very disturbed about it. As a parent how can you assist your child find a creative solution by being empathetic and compassionate? The child can be encouraged to confront the bully instead of avoiding and ignoring. They can probe deeper and find out why the bully is behaving the way he is. There is certainly something bothering the bully which is why he is behaving so. Getting to the root cause might bring about a solution to the problem. An empathetic dialogue is therefore the key. The child will also learn to face problems instead of running away from them. And I guess if we can train our children to do that, it is the best kind of preparation for life!
What is the Difference between Empathy and Sympathy?
Very often, empathy and sympathy are used interchangeably but there is a minute difference between the two.
Empathy as explained is the ability to put oneself in another’s place.
Sympathy on the other hand is sharing the same feelings like another or evoking pity over the misfortune of another. For eg, Feeling sad oneself when another is grieving over the loss of a loved one.
Empathy differs from sympathy in the fact that it carries greater emotional distance. So it is about understanding how someone is feeling without actually experiencing the same feelings oneself.
The Downside of Empathy
While it is popularly believed that empathy is a great tool to cure the world of all the hatred and prejudices, David Bloom in his book Against Empathy highlights that empathy in the real world can cause irrational decisions that can hurt more people than help. Like everything in life, even empathy is good in moderation. Being over-empathetic, putting yourself in other person’s position every-time may not always work. How can one put themselves in the shoes of someone who has been brought up in a completely different environment?
Bloom believes that our sense of empathy can be influenced by our beliefs and perception. He warns that while making decisions we should keep empathy in check. Our capacity for empathy can be a good thing, but don’t let it keep you from making the smart and rational choice.
Pioneering psychologist C. Daniel Batson asked participants in a study to consider a hypothetical situation where doctors were unprepared to treat two very ill patients. Because both were suffering, the doctors correctly deduced that it would be unethical to choose between them, so they decided to move forward with treatment on the first available patient (without knowing who this patient might be in advance). However, then Batson asked his participants if they’d change their minds if the second sick person happened to be someone close to them such as a friend or relative; even though both patients needed treatment, he said, at least one of those near and dear had an imminent chance of recovery. Clearly the empathy felt for this individual outweighed any value given to fairness in placements made in times of urgency.
Bloom in his book has also given cases where he demonstrates that how morality, logic and spirituality can all lead to better decisions than empathy. People may just be kind because it is morally the right thing to do or it’s a part of their religion or just because it makes more sense.
A Chinese proverb attributed to the philosopher Mencius, poses the question: If you were walking by a river and saw a child drowning, what would prompt you to rescue her?
Some people would come to rescue because of empathy; they may consider how heartbroken the girl’s family would be if she died. But most people may decide to rescue the girl because it is simply the right thing to do – they don’t need to place themselves in the shoes of the girl’s family.
Empathy is a powerful emotion that can help us become better people. It allows us to understand and connect with others on a deep level.