A 5-year-old girl falls off the swings and cries. Some of the kids laugh and clap; some look as if they didn’t see a thing. Your child rushes over to help her get up. EMPATHY. You breathe a sigh of relief.
Studies show that children don’t have the cognitive skill to understand the concept of empathy until they’re 8 or 9. But 5 year olds, are concerned about fairness and being treated well, and they want others — friends, family, even characters in books — to be treated well too.
Here are some tips for fostering empathy in your child as they grow up:
Encourage empathy through stories
The right story book can stir a child’s empathy better than any lesson or lecture ever could. Indulge in a lot of story -telling, play -acting, book-reading and spend time explaining each character and their role. Children tend to remember something that was well explained or enacted – they create images of each character along with their unique skill and behaviour.
Ask your child what he/she feels about a lost cat in one story, or why the bad monster was stealing all the cookies in another. Tell them how you’d feel if you were one of those characters, and ask how they would react. Activities that allow careful reflection on how others are feeling in a given situation help build the skills needed for moral action.
Be a role model
Children are always watching how we react to situations and begin to create their own interpretation of the same. When you have respectful and strong relationships and interact with others in a kind and caring way, your child learns from your example. For example – how you treat your house help, how you care for a pet, how you react to a bad character in a movie – remember they are constantly wanting to adopt our values and to model our behaviour, and therefore build on what behaviours they display to others.
Validate their feeling – good,bad,ugly
Sometimes when our child is angry, disappointed or aggressive – we immediately get into fix-it mode to help the child bounce back because we want to protect them of the pain.
However, these feelings are important emotions and are part of life that children need to learn to cope with. In fact, labeling and validating feelings actually helps children learn to handle them: ‘You are angry because mom didn’t let you watch your favourite cartoon before you changed up, It’s okay to feel mad. When you are done being mad you can choose to help me make yummy cupcakes for dinner or play in the kitchen while mommy makes the cupcakes.’ This type of approach also helps children learn to empathize with others who are experiencing difficult feelings.
So put a name to every behavior as often as you can : “It was very kind of you to talk to that girl who was all alone on the slide. She might have been missing her friends and feeling lonely.” By hearing that you noticed her behavior, she’ll learn that you recognize and value her responsiveness.
Empathise with your child
Studies suggest that kids are more likely to develop a strong sense of empathy when their own emotional needs are being met at home. Spend time at home asking questions and insist on talking about their feelings. Understanding and respecting their individual personalities, taking a genuine interest in their lives, and guiding them toward activities that reflect an understanding of the kind of people they are and the things they enjoy play an important role in developing empathy.
For example, ask – how did they feel about a movie you recently watched, what did you learn today that was interesting? What part of the day did you not enjoy? Do you have a friend that you especially respect? Why do you respect that person? Similarly, share your experiences and feelings with them. ‘ I was upset because I was late for work, I was hurt because a friend didn’t speak to me properly’. The more you talk about your feelings, the more they will open up about theirs.
Ask them to think about others
They need to think beyond themselves. While it’s not the easiest task for kids to take another’s perspective but it is important that as parents we point behaviours out early on. The trick is to look for those discipline moments when we can help our children grasp how their actions affect others so it stretches their empathy, and one day they can act right without our guidance. For example – ‘Rohit didn’t like it that you took his toy away, maybe you should give it back and we could get another one.’
To help kids respond more empathically with care:
- Spell out uncaring behaviour
- Explain how uncaring affects someone else, help them understand another’s perspective
- Repair the hurt and make amends
While research shows that children are born equipped to be empathic, but these skills take time and practice to develop and will continue to develop across your child’s life. BE PATIENT.
Tell us how you’ve been able to foster empathy in your child