What is empathy? It could be described as 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. In practical terms, this is about being nice to people who are underprivileged, not being hurtful, sharing, fairness, etc. All are critical social skills that we would all like our children to develop.
So, how do we teach our kids empathy?
We could start by listening when our children are telling us about something that happened. Listening is one of the most important tools for empathy. Often our kids come to us with a narration of something that happened to them which they did not like or some way they got hurt. We need to listen carefully to the narrative. Often we parents don't listen because we know its about something trivial. Yes, the consequences may have been trivial but the opportunity to tell us is not. So we have to go ahead, listen to them and then ask them a few leading questions that shows them that the consequences are trivial. When they do this, children are only looking for empathy from us. It’s not about the end result. So, let us take the time to listen.
It is important for us to talk about suffering when we seen it. The next time we stop at a traffic light and spot someone asking for money, we could talk about why those people are there and why they are begging. When we drive by poor areas and slums, we need to point it out to our children and tell them about why people live there.Media often carries images of people suffering, like bomb blasts etc., If our children are exposed to it, a conversation with them about it helps them understand their feelings. Talking to them about our feelings - were we sad, hurt, disappointed – aids them to compare their feelings and attitudes with ours.
Whenever the need arises, we need to express our empathy. We could take our children to events that benefit children's charities. Maybe get them to donate some part of their Diwali fireworks money to an orphanage. Ask them to donate clothes when the next flood or earthquake relief effort happens. Guide them to help older people in the household. And most importantly, we need to help them when they are genuinely in need
When our children express their empathy, we need to commend them on their feelings. It would help if we speak up whenever we see insensitive behaviour. When we see our little ones behave in an unacceptable manner, we would have to step up and state clearly that the behaviour was not sensitive. This could be when they do not share a toy, or when they would rather watch TV than play with a friend etc. We don't tell them they are "bad,"but explain that their behaviour was not acceptable. We have to explain to them why their behaviour would have hurt someone else and ask them the classic question - "How would you like it if someone did that to you?"
Also, if we witness our children being the victim of insensitive behaviour, we have to teach them to speak up. Ask them to tell their friend "I was hurt when you said that. How would you like it if someone did that to you?". This helps everyone around learn about empathy.