Now is the time to teach empathy

by Meghan Fitzgerald

“The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy, we can all sense a mysterious connection to each other.”  – Meryl Streep

Many of us agree that empathy is vital for our kids, but it can be helpful to sharpen the pencil on exactly what empathy is and, in turn, how to help kids develop it. Studying empathy has changed the way I parent and the way I approach my adult relationships. Learning empathy is a lifelong process, but the more I learn, the easier it feels to understand this superpower and find easy, everyday ways to strengthen it for our kids and ourselves.

What is empathy?
Author and empathy expert, Roman Krznaric, may just define it best when he says empathy is, “the art of stepping into the shoes of another person and seeing the world through their eyes.”  Empathy is an art, a craft that we learn and hone throughout life. And, empathy is not sympathy or pity. Empathy is feeling with someone—actually understanding and feeling the emotions of another person, and responding accordingly.


Why is empathy important?

Empathy is the key to building strong relationships—it’s essential for connection. From an evolutionary perspective, the ability to understand one another, to connect, to work in groups, families, and societies has allowed humans to survive and thrive.

Empathy remains essential for our individual physical and emotional survival. Our ability to connect to one another and to understand one another's point of view enables us to build the kind of connections that sustain us and lead to happiness and even better health. If our children have empathy, they will also have the tools to work with others to solve problems, whether confronted by a bully at school or, down the road, when facing forces that divide us and threaten our planet.

“Empathy is not a luxury for human beings, it is a necessity. We survive not because we have claws and not because we have fangs. We survive because we can communicate and collaborate.” —Daniel Seigel

Why is it important right now?

Alarmingly, empathy has taken a real hit in recent decades. A 2011 study showed that empathy levels in the US have dropped almost 50 percent in young people in the past 30 years, while another study indicated that the level of narcissism (excessive interest in oneself) has doubled among college students during this same time. This is only exacerbated by social networks that place kids’ focus and time on how they manage a “social self” and in which how one is rated is valued over genuine, interpersonal connection.

“There is nothing soft about social and emotional skills.” —Jack Shonkoff

Empathy is elegant–a high bar for kiddos!

Empathy is an elegant and complex skill, and our work to be empathetic never ends. But, the more we learn about empathy and how we humans are wired, the more we know the work is well worth it. Plus, it’s never too early to start.

And, no matter your leanings, you have to admit that discourse we see in media, politics and even in local communities has become more polarized, divisive, and, at times, even hateful. We have a lot of work to do!

Where to start? Three types of Empathy

For me, breaking empathy into smaller parts and tackling each has made me both more curious and more ready to add supporting empathy to my parenting practice. Psychologists, Daniel Goleman, and Paul Ekman, present empathy in three, helpful sub-types: affective empathy; cognitive empathy and empathic concern.

Cognitive Empathy—Sometimes called “perspective taking,” this is the ability to think about how another person is thinking in a given situation. What mental models does the other person have? What is driving them? This also enables us to communicate in an effective way with other people.

Affective (Social) Empathy—The sensing of the emotions that another person is feeling. You experience affective empathy when you tear up at a sad movie, jump in your seat during a scary movie scene. Affective empathy allows us to connect emotionally with others.

Compassionate Empathy—Also known as empathic concern, this refers to our ability to move past sensing another person’s feelings to taking action in response. This is actually a deep drive shared among mammals. It’s what makes the baby want to soothe her peer. Makes parents driven to care for our young. “If I have someone in my life who’s in distress, I’m not just going to feel it. I’m going to want to help them.”

According to Goleman and Ekman, when all three of these are in place, they can work together to support strong connections and relationships, both on individual and community levels.

Okay, but what can we do for our kiddos, and how do we know they are ready?

The good news is, we are wired for empathy from the start! We are biologically set up to connect and to exhibit prosocial behaviors. We have the tools to understand and feel the feelings of others. We just need to learn to activate those tools in more elegant ways.

Anyone who spends time with a group of infants knows that humans need no teaching to experience and respond to the feelings of others. One baby cries, others join in the chorus. Babies and toddlers will give an object to a peer who is sad or do what they can to soothe or help an adult who is visibly struggling.

The more we learn about the brain, the more this all makes sense. Much of empathy involves what is called the limbic system in the brain—the center for emotion, memory and arousal. This bit of brain architecture (that mammals share) develops earlier in humans than the portion of our brain that controls conscious thought.

When we observe the experience of other people, our brain activates in a way that mirrors what activation would look like if we were actually experiencing that situation ourselves—amazing. The more we learn about the “mirror neurons” that produce this effect, the more it becomes clear that we are designed so that our brain recreates the essence in our minds of an intense experience that we witness another person having. As neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran states, this capacity in our brains to experience the experiences of others “is the basis of all empathy.”

Spring 2019:  Our Season of Empathy

Each season, we focus on one of our twelve key skills in our Tinkergarten program. This Spring of 2019, that skill is empathy. This post kicks off a series of posts on the three types of empathy, including simple ways to support empathy in the kiddos we love and, in turn, in ourselves. Click below to continue learning with us!

We hope you too find these ideas we’ve gathered from research and tested ourselves to be simple, even enjoyable to try as part of your day to day routine with the children you love. Stay tuned, and comment to let us know which ones really click, or to share more empathy-boosting ideas that work for you and yours. It will definitely take this village to make the kind of gains we all set in empathy, and nothing could be more important!