Parents and Teachers Building Empathy in Children

 “Hey, would you help me…”

Say this to children, and you will usually get an enthusiastic, “Sure.”

If you get a negative reaction, I can think of several possible causes off the top of my head:

  • It feels imposed rather than offered as an opportunity.
  • It’s a job you hate and, therefore, you are actually taking advantage of them.
  • They feel singled out, and not for greatness.
  • They need a little seducing.
  • You might have caught them at a bad time, in which case you might consider saying something like, “Would there be a better time for you?” (Next time you will be more sensitive to the mission they are on.)
  • You have already made the mistake of giving the lecture on social obligations, and said something stupid like: “You kids! All you ever want is rights. You have to learn that for every right there is a responsibility.” Maybe, they sense that your request was not really in the free will department, but more in the obedience department.
  • They know you think they are selfish.

Beth, a kindergarten teacher at one of my schools, once said: “I see any unused ability in my classroom as an incipient behavior problem,” and she understood the natural empathy in children to be her greatest resource.

I read in the blogosphere that parents should teach children empathy. No, we shouldn’t. Children have empathy; the best way to educate it is to utilize it.

As Beth and all other good educators know, empathy is one of their greatest abilities, and the origin of some of their greatest passions. Their brains are designed to know how others feel. They are wired with mirror neurons; when someone else is hurt, they feel it. By eighteen months they know that another person might want something different from what they want, and are inclined to give them what they want, rather than what they would choose for themselves.

When a small child investigates an object, one of the moves he always makes is to hold it out to the adult. This is our chance to play the game of give and take. Take it. Say “Thank you, for the spoon,” and give it back. When they can talk, they will say “Thank you,” too.

Rather than trying to “teach” children empathy we would do better to act as if we know they are already wired for it, see our homes are hotbeds of empathy and give them opportunities to put their empathy into action—like, say, asking them for help. We also know that children rise (or fall) to our expectations of them. It would be smart to assume they care about others and are working on the never-ending task of understanding other points of view.

Our culture gets in the way here. So steeped are we in seeing the individual as self-determining, self-serving, and self-maximizing, that we tend to see children as selfish. But children know what many adults in our culture often forget: the happiness of others is inextricably connected to our own. By the time children walk in the door of a kindergarten classroom they have been practicing the art of harmonizing their own needs, wants and interests with those of others for over 40,000 hours. Talk about an ability! And Beth always counted on it. Her students were always doing things for her, doing things for others, serving the community. Imagine the ambiance.

Self-centered doesn’t have to mean selfish. Some of the happiest children I have seen over the years are those engaged in real work that matters to someone else. Kids are often honored to be asked to take on a grown-up responsibility. My three-year-old grandson’s favorite line is, “I like to work.”

Children want to matter; they want to make a difference; they want to please. They are eager to be admitted into the adult world of work, unless of course the adult understanding of work is distasteful and to be avoided, in which case…duh.

Adults think they are sending children to school (as if to a sweat shop) to learn the three R’s and to climb the ladder of success. Children want to go to school to be with other children, to make friends, to learn more about their capabilities,…and also to learn stuff.  When we honor the genius in children, we find there is plenty of room for a meeting of these two minds.

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17 thoughts on “Parents and Teachers Building Empathy in Children

  1. Rick, this is beautifully stated, my favorite post of yours to date. The respect you have for children is very moving. Thank you for being such a wonderful model for parents and educators! Yes, there is one thing all children have in common from day one…they “want to matter; they want to make a difference…” This can never be said too much.

  2. Rick, I love the ideas you are suggesting in this post. I’m teaching a workshop right now called Many Hands Make Light Work: How to inspire our family members to pitch in, this article speaks to two of the main themes I teach: 1. Everyone inherently wants to make a difference 2. Parents teach by their actions. 3. The intention of the parent is sometimes more palpable to the child than the deed. In other words, the child distinguish: “Are you asking because you want to control me or to connect with me?” Particularly when they get older. I will share your article with my class. Thank you kindly for this..

  3. Rick, this is fantastic. May I quote your post in my session at the Differentiated Instruction conference in Las Vegas this summer? It’s perfect for the session: Creating Global Citizens in a Me-First World!

  4. My daughter and her colleagues at Virginia Tech have developed a program, to be used in classrooms and schools, to encourage empathy and thus in turn lower bullying rates. This program, called Actively Caring, apparently is by far the most effective anti-bullying approach out there, and is cheap and easy to implement. The idea is to make pro-social behavior desirable to the students (and the teachers, administrators, etc.). The Actively Caring group has been presenting their research at various conferences over the last month, and hopefully this will become a widespread program. The schools which tested the program are extremely pleased with it and plan to continue using it; one principal said it changed the whole culture of the school so that the children and teachers alike are showing empathy and working together as a group instead of just a collection of individuals. One school actually made a stained glass window depicting the Actively Caring bracelets the progam uses as rewards for acting altruistically; they wanted to commemorate the program because it totally transformed the school.

    I want to say that I am in no way selling anything–just excited by how much the Actively Caring movement has the possibility of transforming the culture of schools in this country and beyond. 🙂

  5. I know, Lisa. Thank you. It is a great program. Humans are most fundamentally herd animals and very much want to build self by harmonizing self with others.

  6. Thanks, Rick, for shifting gears in this post and coming back to those vital early years of child development (0 to 6, the First of Montessori’s Four Planes of Development), and for reminding us that empathy – like much else that we value in another – cannot be built in(to) children.

    Rick and Alison Gopnik’s details and ideas are striking and do-able, and I’m glad to see how four important influencers; Janet, Min, Lorrie and Lisa, picked up on them and are undertaking to spread them in their own worlds; bravo you guys! … (Thusly, we hope, Six Degrees of Separation can take over their dissemination?!)

    While empathy and other desirables cannot be injected or force-fed, we are reminded that we can influence our child directly and indirectly so that these traits that we so value are nurtured and coached* to arise, blossom and mature from the child’s own roots, deep inside.

    So much of this is so Montessorian: I see here Dr. Maria’s 100-year old basic concepts such as Respect The Child, the innate curiosity of children, Follow The Child and ensure that environments are calm and orderly. These concepts are reflected in Rick and Alison’s words today in a way that is instantly recognized and appreciated by this generation as plain ordinary common sense.

    Under Rick’s last post I spoke of the importance of the concept of Leadership & Followship (sic) and its interlocked question, Who or WHAT is Doing the Leading here? The child IS wired to learn; there are 7 billion of us here today, up from 2.4 billion when I was born, each one started as a child and learnt, or is self-programmed to learn, enough to become a competent adult.

    Last time we saw that, in a given moment, a child attempts to assimilate and make use of maybe 11 million very personal inputs in order to satisfy his evolutionary urge to move from dependency to independency in that particular activity. Each child can and will do this, hopefully at his or her own pace in a calm and orderly environment, with parents and teachers who know enough to Follow The Child without interrupting the child.

    Have a good week, everyone!

    Respectfully submitted by,
    Montessori-AMI Parent Peter in Toronto,

    * In Rick’s previous two posts we looked at different roles in a child’s life; parent, teacher and counselor, each functioning separately in its own segregated safe space. Maybe now it’s time to look at the role of the coach? …

  7. I often discuss empathy with many of the families I work with who have children on the autism spectrum. While some feel that these children may be wired to be apathetic, I have found the opposite to be true. Many of the children I work with who have ASD are so empathetic that the persistent flood of emotion can be too much to handle, leading to the shut-down that mimics apathy. All too often it’s the parents I’m working with who need the nudge to up the empathy!

  8. Miss Erica, I am so glad you contributed this perspective. Many people need to know this about children on the autism spectrum. and I love “parents need to work on their empathy.”
    Thank you.

  9. It’s actually a very handy item of information. I am just thankful that you simply discussed this useful info with us. Remember to be united states updated like this. Thank you sharing.

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