Teaching the Virtues: Empathy
Teaching Empathy, Starting Early
By Mary Dixon Lebeau
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Although some children seem to be naturally caring and considerate, empathy is a learned skill. To instill a sense of empathy in the child, a parent should start setting an example at an early age. Even as toddlers, children may show true empathy when they try to connect someone else’s discomfort with their own.
“Whenever my two year old son sees me cry, he offers me his stuffed Snoopy,” says Shirley Neher, a New Jersey mom of three. “He seems to understand that I’m feeling sad, and he offers me the object that makes him feel better when he cries.”
Of course, since her child does not verbalize his empathy, Neher cannot be sure if he understands what mom is feeling or is simply upset with the way she is acting. Still, his actions indicate he connects her tears with feeling sad and he cares enough to want to do something to make her feel better. These are the immature baby steps toward what will become mature empathy.
Toddlers still have difficulty seeing things from another’s point of view, but they respond with sympathy when someone they care about gets hurt. Praise the child for this, talk about how others feel, and insist on basic courtesy at this age. These seeds may blossom into true empathy in later years.
As the child approaches preschool, children show signs of truly connecting other people’s feelings with their own. For example, I take my own children with me when we distribute bagged lunches to the homeless in nearby Camden, NJ. At four, my daughter would complain that she was hungry while we were passing out the food, asking for a bag of her own.
I seized her complaint as a teaching opportunity. “When we’re done here, we’ll go home to a full refrigerator,” I told my daughter. “Some of the people here don’t know when they’ll have food again.” She took all this in, then handed the bag she wanted to the next person who approached.
Of course, the best way to teach empathy is to be empathetic yourself. Just like in nursery school, children get a lot out of “show and tell,” so be empathetic in your actions and explain the connection of feelings to your children.
Writer Mary Dixon LeBeau will return next month to teach the next important virtue, as part of our new parenting series “Teaching the Virtues.”