Empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner (Webster)”. Empathy is distinct from sympathy (a feeling of compassion or concern for another, the wish to see them better off or happier. ), pity (feeling that another is in trouble and in need of help as they cannot fix their problems themselves), and emotional contagion (imitatively “catching” the emotions that others are showing without necessarily recognizing this is happening).While the way children understand the intellectual meaning, and implications, of empathy varies from case to case, a straightforward approach makes everything easier to relate to. For example, show a few pictures of people who clearly look happy, bored, suprised, etc and ask children to identify what these people are feeling. Then, show pictures of people waiting for a bus, looking at their watch, etc. and ask children to identify what these people are likely to be thinking. Then, just explain that is empathy: the capacity of understanding what other people feel and think. Explain that we all have this capacity for empathy, and that it gets better and better when cultivated with determination. Show pictures of happy kids in groups, playing together, listening to each other, etc. and explain that kids who are empathic are better at understanding their own feelings and the ones of peers, parents, teachers, etc. This resulting in people liking even more to communicate with them, at the advantage of everyone’s happiness.
How to facilitate empathy among children?
In “the heart of parenting: raising an emotionally intelligent child” John Gottman defines the five steps of emotion coaching as:
being aware of the child’s emotions
recognizing the presence of emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching
listening emphatically and validating the child’s feelings
helping the child to verbally label emotions
setting limits and problem-solving.
He says that his studies demonstrate that emotion-coached children learn better, get along well with others and are physically healthier and socially better adapted than children who have not had such “coaching”. He researched this mainly in terms of interactions between children and parents, however this can be extended also to educators, and peers. As summarized on http://eqi.org/, an Emotion Coach:
values the child’s negative emotions as an opportunity for intimacy and bonding
can tolerate spending time with sad, angry or fearful child
does not become impatient with emotions
is aware of and values own emotions
sees the world of negative emotions as an important area for parenting
is sensitive to the child’s emotional states, even subtle ones
is not confused or anxious about the child’s emotional expression
knows what needs to be done
respects the child’s emotions
does not invalidate the child’s emotions
does not say how the child should feel
does not believe he needs to fix has to fix every problem for the child
uses emotional moments to: listen to the child; empathize with soothing words and affection; help the child label emotion; offer guidance on regulating emotion; set limits and teach acceptable behaviour and expression of emotions; teach problem-solving methods
This substantially increases the likelihood that a child learns to trustfeelings, relate to emotions, make the best of opportunities and solve problems, and get along well with others.
Michele Borba, in her “Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing”, identifies empathy as the first of the Seven Essential Virtues of Moral Intelligence (http://www.micheleborba.com/Pages/7virtues.htm), and also three steps to facilitate empathy:
Foster awareness and an emotional vocabulary.
Enhance sensitivity to the feelings of others.
Develop empathy for another person’s point of view.
Among the other essential virtues she outlines, these are also very important for developing empathy:
respect: showing you value others by treating them in a courteous and considerate way. Fostering actions: convey the meaning of respect. Enhance respect for authority and squelch rudeness. Emphasize good manners and courtesy.
kindness: demonstrating concern about the welfare and feelings of others. Fostering actions: teach the meaning and value of kindness. Establish a zero tolerance for meanness and nastiness. Encourage kindness and point out its positive effect.
tolerance: respecting the dignity and rights of all persons, even those beliefs and behaviours we may disagree with. Fostering actions: model and nurture tolerance from an early age. Instill an appreciation for diversity. Counter stereotypes and do not tolerate prejudice.
fairness: choosing to be open-minded and to act in a just and fair way. Fostering actions: treat kids fairly. Help children learn to behave fairly. Show ways to stand up against unfairness and injustice.
This shows that empathy is a multidimensional way to relate to people; it is an approach, not only a goal to achieve. It is always a “working”, or even better “relating”, in progress.