Parenting comes to life in the stories we share.
Whether it’s a moment of joy or a moment of distress, we can learn from each other.
Nadia Muhammed, Kitchener, ON
It dawned upon me some years ago that empathy does not come naturally for everyone.
One morning, while busy with chores at the speed of lightning, I hit my shin on the step leading out to the balcony. I hit it so hard I fell over. The pain was excruciating! I thought I had broken my leg.
The only company I had at that time was a sleeping one-year old and a confused two-year-and-a-half year old. A little boy who had no idea why mom was on the floor. When I called him for help, I was surprised to see that he did not seem at all upset for me.
I told him that I was in pain but he just stood there. I asked him for a hug (because I really needed one!) and sent him off to get my phone.
My leg was fine within no time but I kept thinking about my child’s reaction to me on that day. I wondered why he did not seem to react to my distress.
I began to explore more about how to encourage empathy. I looked for books and online resources. I spoke with other parents. I wanted to know why some children seem to be more empathetic than others are.
I learned that although empathy is a natural human behaviour, it is still something we have to learn. Some children develop empathy more naturally than other children do, but all children need to be taught this critical skill. I also learned that parents and teachers play a vital role in nurturing this skill in children. Most importantly, it is never too early or too late to encourage empathy in our children.
The next step was, how? How can I do to encourage empathy in my children?
Labelling: Giving feelings a name
Empathy begins with emotional awareness—both our own and others. One way to start to build this is to help children develop a rich “feelings vocabulary”. When they have the words they need to name their own feelings, they can tell us what they are feeling instead of throwing temper tantrums.
It is difficult for a child to understand others’ feelings if he cannot understand how he is feeling. In our family, we name positive as well as negative feelings. Through the conversation, we help our children make the connection between the feeling words and their emotional reactions. They can then build a vocabulary to help express themselves.
There are many websites with ideas for activities to build emotional literacy. Here is one article with some fun ideas: https://www.thoughtco.com/activities-to-increase-emotional-vocabulary-2086623
Building a “feelings vocabulary” together, as a family, is quite a fun activity.
Being a role model: Acting with empathy
The best way to teach empathy to children is by modelling it—by doing the skill you would like them to develop. It did not take me long to get a chance to do just this as my child fell and hurt himself a few days later. I picked him up, held him close to comfort him, labelled his feelings (“you are sad that you got hurt”), and shared that I have felt that way, too. I stayed with him until he stopped crying and felt better.
It is important to listen to our children when they are experiencing difficult emotions as opposed to leaving them to deal with it on their own. Children are not born with all the skills necessary for managing their emotions. I believe that it is my job as a parent to help my children develop these skills. Staying with my son, comforting him, holding him close, helping him find words to express what he is feeling are tiny moments in time yet big moments in both learning and strengthening connection for both my child and myself. I knew, in that moment, that I was helping my son develop empathy.
If we show empathy, it is more likely that our children will do the same.
Delegating responsibilities: Contributing to family well-being
If we involve children in daily chores or let them be responsible for a pet or a plant, they will start to learn to think about others. An added bonus is that parents can get the chores done and spend some quality time with children at the same time.
I have found that when I acknowledge and appreciate their help, clearly expressing how I feel when they help me with the chores, my children are more eager to help. Truly! They feel my joy as though it is their own. Empathy is the ability to “feel with” another, in these positive moments as well as the more distressing ones.
Random acts of kindness: Caring about others
Children learn behaviour by observing their parents. If parents are performing some random acts of kindness in their daily lives, their children may learn them too. Helping the neighbours, holding doors for strangers, offering seats to elderly people in a public transport, sharing food or other things with the unprivileged ones are a few examples. Being kind to each other, as well. These are values we live by in our family.
The late Abdul Sattar Edhi, a well-known Pakistani philanthropist who ran the world’s largest ambulance network and a huge number of shelters for homeless and orphans, shared that his mom used to give him two quarters as school money. She made sure that he spent one on himself and the other one on a person in need.
Parent-Child Bonding: Connecting with each other
Children are more likely to develop empathy when their emotional needs are met at home. They want to feel heard and helped when experiencing conflict or strong emotions. They need to know that we understand what they are going through and that we will be there for them. A secure attachment creates the sense of a “secure base” from which children are able to explore the world around them and develop relationships with others. As parents, it our responsibility to nurture this feeling of security so that our children are able to relate with others with sensitivity and compassion.
Empathy begins at home. What I have come to learn is that children develop the capacity for empathy when they experience being empathized with—when their feelings are heard, understood and valued by another—a parent or other caring adult in their life. We must remember: children learn from what we, their parents, ‘do,’ not just what we ‘say’. We can teach them many different skills, but we must also remember to model them.
The little two-and-a-half year old that got me thinking about all this is now a kind and loving ten year old. Recently my youngest child broke one of his fingers and my ten year old helps him pack his backpack for school and keeps him company, ready to help out when needed. He loves drawing and expresses his love through his drawing. We are very proud of how kind, helpful and empathic all of our sons have become. My heart swells with pride when I see them hold open a door for someone!
Nadia is the proud mom of three active and loving boys. Nadia is also part of our Experienced Parent Team here at Parenting Now and is a facilitator with the Parenting with Passion program at KW Counselling Services. You can read more about Nadia on our Let’s Talk Parenting page. Connect with her online and chat about raising boys, encouraging empathy — or any other parenting concern. Nadia also speaks Urdu and you can chat with her online in Urdu or English.
Editor’s Note: We want to thank Nadia for this wonderfully heartwarming story of her parenting journey. Encouraging the development of empathy is something we all, as parents, want to be able to do and Nadia has given us some great strategies–as well as great insights. Nadia has also emphasized the importance of connection and how it is the parent-child relationship that helps to shape and guide so much of a child’s development. To read more about why connection matters, check out this article, Connection Matters.