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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 what is it, and how can we help our kids develop it? Studying empathy has changed the way I parent and approach my adult relationships. It has also helped me and my family get through this challenging time in history. 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?
Empathy, says author and expert Roman Krznaric 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. It’s not sympathy or pity, but rather feeling with someone—actually understanding and feeling the emotions of another person, and responding accordingly.

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Why is empathy important?

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

Empathy remains essential. 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 can 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. Among young Americans, empathy levels have dropped almost 50% in the past 30 years, according to a  2011 study. While another study found that the level of narcissism (excessive interest in oneself) has doubled among college students during that time. To make matters worse, social networks place kids’ focus and time on managing 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

Where to start? Three types of Empathy

For me, breaking empathy into smaller parts has helped me as a parent. Two psychologists, Daniel Goleman, and Paul Ekman, define three 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. 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 or jump in your seat during a scary scene. Affective empathy allows us to connect emotionally with others.
  • Compassionate Empathy—Also known as empathic concern, this is how we move past sensing another person’s feelings to taking action in response. It’s what makes the baby want to soothe her peer, and 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.

What can we do for our kiddos?

Good news! 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 them.

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, and others join in the chorus. Babies and toddlers will give an object to a peer who is sad or try to soothe or help an adult who is visibly struggling. 

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 activation mirrors what it would look like if we were actually experiencing that situation ourselves—amazing. Our brains’ capacity to experience the experience of others is “the basis of all empathy,” says neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran.

Keep learning and teaching 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!

Empathy is, at its core, a group effort. Find some ideas for helping build empathy here and here. They’re simple and even fun to incorporate into your parenting routine. 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 that stem from empathy, and nothing could be more important right now!

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