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Now Is the Time to Teach Your Child 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 developing empathy skills is vital for our kids, but what are they, and how can we help kids  develop them? Understanding empathy will change the way you parent and approach your adult relationships. It will also help families get through this challenging time in history. 

Here are easy, everyday ways to understand and strengthen this superpower for your kids and yourselves.

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.” It’s 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.

There are three types of empathy, according to psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman:

  • 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 a baby want to soothe her peer, and makes parents driven to care for our young. 

When all three of these are in place, say Goleman and Ekman, they can work together to support strong connections and relationships.

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.

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Why is empathy important right now?

Our ability to connect to one another and to understand one another's point of view enables us to build 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, when 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

Alarmingly, empathy has taken a real hit in recent decades. Among young Americans, empathy levels have dropped precipitously, 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. Social networks place kids’ focus and time on managing a “social self” in which how one is rated is valued over genuine, interpersonal connection.

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

What can we do for our kiddos?

Good news! We are wired for empathy from the start! 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 all mammals share) develops earlier in humans than the portion of our brain that controls conscious thought.

We have the tools to understand and feel the feelings of others. We just need to learn to activate them. Here are some ways to start:

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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