We have always believed that education should not only be about filling a child’s head with information but to develop the whole child – heart, mind and body. The more we pursue this aspiration, the more evident it becomes that everything is interconnected. Empathy, for instance, may seem to be merely a moral skill that is nice for children to have, yet the more we understand about it, the clearer its connection to our children’s success becomes. If we truly desire to raise successful children, we must also raise empathic ones.
The Value of Empathy
Empathy is a skill that is essential for our personal, relationship, and career success. Individuals that have developed this skill tend to perform better socially and academically. Ellen Gallinsky has identified it as one of the essential life skills all children need to develop in her book Mind in the Making.
Perspective taking is the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective. In order to develop that skill, we need to help children develop empathy because empathy is the emotion that helps them to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.
Empathy is also one of the skill sets that contribute to emotional intelligence (EQ) – a quality Daniel Goleman believes to be even more important than IQ in personal, relationship, and career success.
Why should we nurture empathy in our kids?
Emotional intelligence has become an increasingly popular idea over the last twenty years. While “IQ” (intelligence quotient) attempts to describe our thinking and reasoning abilities, “EQ” (emotional intelligence quotient) attempts to describe our ability to work with our own and others’ emotions. The importance of these skills for personal, relationship and even work success has become increasingly recognized in the psychological community, and researchers and therapists alike are developing ways of helping folks learn and make use of these skills.
“Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to perceive and express emotion accurately and adaptively, the ability to understand emotion and emotional knowledge, the ability to use feelings to facilitate thought, and the ability to regulate emotions in oneself and in others” (Salovey & Pizarro, 2002).
One of the most important of the emotional intelligence skills is empathy.
A strong sense of empathy allows children to make decisions that are right for them without hurting others or seeking approval or acceptance. This may strengthen them against negative peer pressure and a range of maladaptive behaviors such as substance abuse, bullying, narcissism, aggression or violence against others.
What’s Wrong with Our Children?
Although most parents want their children to understand that empathy is important, a study from Harvard University reveals that the majority of children today perceive achievement and happiness to be more important than caring for others.
The Making Caring Common project at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education surveyed 10,000 middle and high school students about what was more important to them, “achieving at a high level, happiness, or caring for others.” Almost 80 percent of students ranked achievement or happiness over caring for others. Only 20 percent of students identified caring for others as their top priority. – The Atlantic
Where are our children getting these messages? From us, apparently. Even though we’re telling our children that it is important to be ethical, caring and moral, our behaviours are telling them something else. Evidently, actions do speak louder than words.
96 percent of parents say they want to raise ethical, caring children, and cite the development of moral character as “very important, if not essential,” 80 percent of the youths surveyed reported that their parents “are more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others.” – The Atlantic
Teaching Children Empathy
- Drama and Play Therapist, Dr Sue Jennings talked about using Neuro-Dramatic Play to help children develop empathy.
- In Mind in the Making, Ellen Gallinsky also shares how we can help children develop perspective taking.
There are also some great tips from Amy Joyce on the Washington Post:
1. Making caring for others a priority:
- Instead of saying to your kids: “The most important thing is that you’re happy,” say “The most important thing is that you’re kind.”
- Make sure that your older children always address others respectfully, even when they’re tired, distracted, or angry.
- Emphasize caring when you interact with other key adults in your children’s lives. For example, ask teachers whether your children are good community members at school.
2. Provide opportunities for children to practice caring and gratitude
- Don’t reward your child for every act of helpfulness, such as clearing the dinner table. We should expect our kids to help around the house, with siblings, and with neighbors and only reward uncommon acts of kindness.
- Talk to your child about caring and uncaring acts they see on television and about acts of justice and injustice they might witness or hear about in the news.
- Make gratitude a daily ritual at dinnertime, bedtime, in the car, or on the subway. Express thanks for those who contribute to us and others in large and small ways.
3. Expand your child’s circle of concern
- Make sure your children are friendly and grateful with all the people in their daily lives, such as a bus driver or a waitress.
- Encourage children to care for those who are vulnerable. Give children some simple ideas for stepping into the “caring and courage zone,” like comforting a classmate who was teased.
- Use a newspaper or TV story to encourage your child to think about hardships faced by children in another country.
4. Be a strong moral role model and mentor
- Model caring for others by doing community service at least once a month. Even better, do this service with your child.
- Give your child an ethical dilemma at dinner or ask your child about dilemmas they’ve faced.
5. Guide children in managing destructive feelings
Here’s a simple way to teach your kids to calm down: ask your child to stop, take a deep breath through the nose and exhale through the mouth, and count to five. Practice when your child is calm. Then, when you see her getting upset, remind her about the steps and do them with her. After a while she’ll start to do it on her own so that she can express her feelings in a helpful and appropriate way.
Reading Literary Fiction Helps Children Develop Empathy
Another interesting way you can help children develop empathy is by encouraging them to read fiction books. This is because when we engage with a story we are temporarily placing ourselves in the character’s shoes. The more fictional books we read, the more shoes we step into and the more insights we gain.
What sort of books?
The books they’re referring to are literary fiction. Pop-fiction and non-fiction books had as much effect as reading nothing at all.
Literary fiction is a term principally used for certain fictional works that hold literary merit. In other words, they are works that offer deliberate social commentary, political criticism, or focus on the individual to explore some part of the human condition.
Genre fiction, also known as popular fiction, is plot-driven fictional works written with the intent of fitting into a specific literary genre, in order to appeal to readers and fans already familiar with that genre.
Stories like Harry Potter have been shown to be especially effective. I would think that books like the following would also qualify:
- Brave New World – recommended age 14
- To Kill a Mockingbird – recommended age 12
- Lord of the Flies – recommended age 12
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – recommended age 12
- Animal Farm – recommended age 13
- The Book Thief – recommended age 13
- The Diary of Anne Frank – recommended age 11
- The Giver – recommended age 11
- Bridge to Terabithia – recommended age 9
- Inkheart – recommended age 9
- Charlotte’s Web – recommended age 7
What’s the difference?
The theory follows:
Popular fiction tends to portray situations that are otherworldly and follow a formula to take readers on a roller-coaster ride of emotions and exciting experiences. Although the settings and situations are grand, the characters are internally consistent and predictable, which tends to affirm the reader’s expectations of others. It stands to reason that popular fiction does not expand the capacity to empathize.
Literary fiction, by contrast, focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships. “Often those characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations,” Kidd says. This genre prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom. Although literary fiction tends to be more realistic than popular fiction, the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes. They support and teach us values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves.
It should be noted that we need to analyse and discuss the ideas from the stories as well as identify with the characters in order to gain these benefits.
If literary fiction can teach you about empathy, could the same be said if that story were told in other forms? For instance, a movie or a musical? I have never read the book Les Miserables but I saw the musical and I will never forget Valjean’s story. If the benefits are gained by analysing and discussing ideas from a story, then perhaps we can look at more than just books. Food for thought.
You can find more resources and tips for developing empathy here: