Empathy & Understanding
    Empathy is a powerful force connecting us to each other as a human species. Most of us are capable of feeling empathy and understnading towards others, even though we might not always show it. One of the tenets of thoughtful parenting is being empathic with our children and teaching them to be empathic with others. In order to teach empathy we must model empathy in the way we talk, listen and behave, not only with our children, but also with ourselves and with the wider community. When we put ourselves in the shoes of another person, we truly begin to understand and value multiple perspectives and ways of knowing. In this manner we can reduce misunderstnding and conflict while increasing positivite interactions and opportunities for gaining knowledge and collaboration.
    The first step to increasing our own capacity for empathy and passing this on to our children is to become excellent observers.  When relating to others we need to not only listen carefully to what is being said but also observe body language, notice tone, and pay attention to context.  By carefully observing another person we are more likely to be able to imagine ourselves in their shoes and see things from their perspectives. There is no doubt that some of us are much better observers than others, and perhaps this makes the good observes behave in more empathic ways if they act on their observations, internalizing the messages given and taking them in to account during interactions. Others are less observant, concentrating mainly on workds spoken, making assumptions, or busy thinking about what to say.  These individuals, although they may feel empathy when a situation is explained to them, may seem less empathic because they lack the observational skills and behaviors necessary to give empathy where and when it is needed.  The good news is that we can improve either in our level of empathy or our ability to express empathy.  By improving our skills at being empathic and teaching these to our children, we are taking an important step towards combating bullying and giving our children the support and comfort they need to maintain a happy and healthy social and emotional life. 
   While empathy is important throughout the journey of parenting, it may peak in importance during the teenage years.  While it is relatively easy to empathize with a helpless infant or adorable toddler or small child, teenagers can challenge us. When we are able to assure our young adults that we empathize with their situations, however trivial or temporary they may seem to us, then we can strengthen our relationship with them and assure that they will continue communicating with us. Too often, we as parents dismiss what our teens are struggling with as trivial and try to get them to focus on what we consider important.  The mistake is that if we do not acknowledge and empathize with their idea of what is relevant in their lives, they have no reason to listen to us and empathize with our point of view. Obviously, this is easier said than done and my own teens would quickly point out that I am guilty of not doing this myself on many occasions.  Nevertheless, as thoughtful parents we must continue trying and below are some tips to help us out in that area.  

Empathy Tips
  • become a better observer, notice tone, speed of talk, body language, and context during an interaction
  • ask thoughtful questions before making an assumption
  • listen carefully to the messages you hear without worrying about how you will respond
  • imagine how you would feel and react in the situation of the other person and keep in mind that we are all different and may react differently
  • show that you value the other person with your own body language by giving responsive feedback such as looking at your interlocutor, nodding your head, giving verbal feedback with noises or words of acknowledgment and keeping a posture that is open and attentive. 


The Power of Empathy; Helen Reiss at TEDx Middlebury
        Ideas for Teaching Empathy to Kids

With younger kids use role plays with puppets or stuffed animals and dolls, acting out situations that they may find themselves in.  Make sure to act out the empathic response as well as the unempathic response.  Model this a few times then have kids participate as one puppet in the role play,and then extend by asking them to create their own situations. Older children can do the same without the use of puppets.

Use interactive buddy journaling with kids.  This is a journal that parents and kids keep together where they can share issues and situations that are bothering them or making them happy.  The key is to have no judgement just interactive comments back and forth that model empathy and caring

Give kids their wishes in fantasy.  Sometimes we may dismiss our children's dream desires, such as very expensive toys, or, for older kids, the freedom to do things we restrict.  Give them the room to have their wishes granted in fantasy by simply acknowledging their desire and mirroring it back to them.  Such as;

Child: I wish I had a hover board!
Parent: You would love it if we bought you a hover board.
Child: I want one that does X...
Parent: If you had one that did X... you would Y and Z!
Child: Yes, and then I would....
Parent: You would love that, wouldn't you?

Sometimes just giving a child the freedom to fantasize about what he or she wants will help that child put the desire away for a while or let it go, at least temporarily..  Simply stopping the child from talking about it or giving a firm no with no questions asked will keep it festering between you and create tension in the relationship. 


You can preview some great resources for teaching and practicing empathy with children by clicking on the preview links below.  The first is for parents and teachers while the novel, Wonder, can be used as a shared novel with your children or students to start a discussion on appreciating empathy, valuing diversity, and the harm of bullying. 


Brene Brown on Empathy