How We’ve Built Child Rearing Around Empathy

I firmly believe that children are born with much of their personality intact. I look at my two littles and think (often) that they couldn’t be more different from one another personality-wise, and yet – born and raised by the same two parents in much of the same manner.

One aspect of their character development that I believe is influenced by the world around them is their ability to demonstrate empathy.

Empathy is different from sympathy.

Empathy is: “I see you, I see your pain and sorrow – I feel your pain and sorrow with you.”

Sympathy is: “I see you, I see your pain and sorrow – I’m sorry this is happening to you.”

This is a hard concept to understand even for adults – it’s nearly impossible to explain it to a child who may not have the words to understand the difference. But there are ways to teach about empathy without ever haven’t to utter the word empathy.

  • Learning Through Play. Kids do a lot of learning through play. I remember a conversation I had with my sister-in-law, who had three children at the time. I was an anxious first-time mom and talking to her about a daycare program – and the fact that very young children at this daycare were bringing home worksheets. She explained that worksheets at that age were pointless (true) and that the most important aspect of child development was to learn through play. And that is what we did. We invested what seemed like years of our lives (my darling and I) on the floor, in the playroom, developing characters, plots, themes. We got creative. And sometimes, the storylines in our “dramatic play” included themes where empathy needed to be demonstrated.
  • Learning Through Reading. Reading is (for me) the most important academic subject – even math in American public schools is heavily based on the ability to read. We started reading to our children when they were infants and we haven’t stopped. And there are so many books that highlight inclusivity, diversity, and empathy. We’re lucky enough to live near a public library and have made friends with the librarian there – she’ll help us find books if we’re looking to explore certain topics. Scholastic is a favorite publisher of school-aged books and we’ve read many of the books on this list that highlights books that teach empathy.
  • Littles Who Help. I’ve noticed in my own children that as soon as they are old enough to be even remotely independent, they want to help. It usually isn’t really helpful. A 3 year old who wants to wash the tomatoes for a salad, usually makes more of a mess in the water than anything else – and you usually have to rewash everything anyway. BUT – even at that age, you hope that by engaging with them as “helpers” that they will continue to be “helpers” in the home – and in the world. So – unless I’m in a huge rush or they’re asking to help with something dangerous, I’m on board. Our nine-year old asked to wash the laundry the other day – that was an enthusiastic yes from me. Oh, you want to “play” vacuum with the real vacuum – that’s another yes from me. And – it doesn’t hurt to ASK your children to help too. Sometimes there’s just too much going on and I need someone else to wipe down tables or load the dishwasher. One of our “family” rules is that we help each other – and we try to live by that motto every day.
  • Answering Questions Honestly. How can anyone show empathy if they don’t really know what’s going on? Even children deserve to know when things aren’t quite right – they know anyway, but may not have the words to describe what the problem is. Our children have known since they could talk that their daddy was dealing with something serious and unique. When they have had questions – especially our first – I was afraid to verbalize what was really happening. But a friend – who happens to be a licensed social worker and therapist – explained that I could share what was happening at an age appropriate level, and to answer only the question that was being asked. Sometimes the questions were too general – so before answering a long and drawn out answer, I’d ask for them to be more specific, and I would answer the specific question.
  • Third Party Connection. Kids need a sense of belonging, not just in their family, but in their community as well to make sense of the world around them. Team sports. Extracurricular activities. Neighborhood kids getting together to ride bikes and scooters at night before bed. Church. These are the ways that we engage in our community and it has exposed our children to people, cultures, religions – difference – that I believe helps them feel secure in the differences that they see in their own home life. This comfort with difference is essential – because then they aren’t afraid to be present and feel alongside someone else who is struggling but isn’t like them. Isn’t that what life’s all about anyway?
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Wife, mother, writer, and caregiver. If you're here for support and caregiving life hacks, you've come to the right place.

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