Authored by: Geetu Navani
My very first guest blogger is a lovely lady I have come to know closely only recently. Amongst ALL the other things she is passionate about, she is particularly touchy when it comes to children and topics associated with them. This also means that you can expect to read a lot of her work on this blog going forward.
In her very first-write up for us, she tackles the subject of fostering empathy in kids. She goes on to explain how we, as parents or caregivers, have the largest role to play in creating a world full of empathetic children.
Given the dispiriting news of events that stem from our current, morally toxic environment: student shootings, rampant cases of sexual crimes on college campuses, terrorism, the harrowing Delhi rape case of 2012; it is heartening to learn about a revolutionary, new initiative, ‘Think Equal’, spearheaded by British film maker, Leslee Udwin, which aims to bring human rights education as a cumpulsory component of education curricula around the world. The premise of the program lays emphasis on educating the HEARTS of our children and not just their HEADS and that it should start from the very beginning of every child’s formal education.
The importance of teaching children, empathy, then, cannot be more urgent and/or re iterated. The ability to recognize another’s emotions or more simply put; being able to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, is, empathy.
So how do we teach our children to be more in touch with their feelings and concerns about what happens to themselves and others? How do we raise children to be happy, empathetic, compassionate and caring adults?
Before I dive deep into the subject, it is vital to note that we are all wired for empathy from birth and that it is a learned personality trait. Also, young children are directly affected by the degree of empathy their caregivers model, and teach; and, that parents and educators who proactively teach children how to identify and understand their – and other people’s feelings in disparate situations help children develop empathy.
Reading a wide range of stories introduces young readers to experience different people’s feelings, places and times. Experts state that it tricks our brains into thinking we are part of the story. This inculcates perspective and the empathy we feel for characters in fiction, wires our brains to have the same sensitivity towards real people, and perhaps even the inclination to help. Moreover, story based questioning and discussions around the same, works well to build a language for emotions enabling young children to understand and express their feelings effectively as well as empathize with how others feel.
The choice of language we use is also crucial; bearing in mind that children are always mirroring us. Do we talk about others in a derogatory manner? Are we tolerant or judgemental of our friends or people in general? How do we describe those around us? Labelling people in a negative fashion, such as ‘she is wicked,’ or ‘he is so selfish,’ or ‘he is absolutely annoying,’ in front of our children, is not empathetic language. Perhaps, your child reported to you that his/her friend at school is rather annoying. Helping your child identify the emotions behind his/her friend’s annoying behavior is important. ‘Could it be that your friend was hungry, or tired, and that is why he wasirritable, and thus annoying?’ Discouraging labelling, and reframing the choice of words and expressions enablesyour child to recognize the feelings behind a certain behavior; thereby facilitating him/her to arrive at a positive conclusion i.e. fostering empathy.
Encouraging children to self regulate and manage their emotions effectively is just as important as helping children build a language for emotions. Children first need to learn to understand their own feelings before they can fully identify others’ emotions. How can we help them achieve that? By ‘trusting’ them. By not overriding them. By not telling them what they should or should not feel. When children are angry, upset or tired, I have often heard parents tell them, ‘you have no reason to be upset!’ ‘You’ve got it all!’ To chide them, on how they should or should not feel is preventing them from learning how to self regulate their feelings. We need to empathize with them, and value their feelings in order for them to develop a strong sense of self so that when they are pushed to the curb, they will be less fearful of saying, ‘no’ as they will trust themselves to make the right decision based on what ‘they’ feel rather than on what ‘others’ want them to feel or do.
Providing opportunities for children to practice empathy such as in role play, reinforces empathetic behavior and aids in becoming second nature. For instance, when they take on the role of a dancer, they learn how long dancers train to perfect their act. Or when they play ‘mommy’, they come to realize the effort mums take to rustle up their child’s favorite meals. Immersing themselves in others’ roles enhances their ability to empathize with people around them as they truly ‘feel’ what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes.
Modelling compassion and making care and concern a priority in our everyday lives and treating others with respect and kindness help our children (they are watching us) emulate these acts. You and your child may be exploring your neighborhood when your child notices an injured kitten and naturally curious, he/she crouches over to investigate and exclaims, ‘Mom! May we take it home to nurse it?’ That’s empathy at work!!
On a closing note, here’s something to mull over. Children may feel empathy for others having learned these positive acts from their parents, but societal pressures and biases can block their ability to express their concern. This potential tension poses a dilemma for the parents. They may be tempted to excessively police their children’s daily routine and cocoon them thus denying them the varied experiences they should be permitted to have.
How young children FEEL is as important as how they think and how they are TREATED is as important as what they are taught – Jack Shonkoff.
Faux-stained glass, sea-glass, and mosaic artist; early childhood facilitator/educator/researcher and a passionate mother and homemaker, a simple life where children gather is good with me.
A restless experimentalist and totally inspired by my love for the ocean; this is explicitly reflected in my glass art. I create sculptural glass art for both professional and home settings from public installations (children’s nurseries & hotels) to small craft.
As an Early Years Practitioner, I realise that we live in a new era of working with children. I value deeply, the importance of the work I do, both within the classroom, and outside of it. Inspired by the innocence of young children, I am continually striving to find ways and resources to empower our children in every possible way.
I can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org