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Empathy: a soft skill or vital to creating the world we wish to see?

We are so lucky to live in a small multicultural multiracial country where people coexist, for the most part, very peacefully together, respecting the religions and cultural traditions of different ethnic groups. Polite behaviour, care of the elderly, volunteering within the community are just some of the activities that are encouraged in schools, by the government, as well as by organisations like Singapore Kindness Movement, an NGO that encourages acts of kindness from every Singaporean with projects such as their Be Greater programme https://www.kindness.sg/be-greater/ .

Across the island, Ministry notices remind us to give up our seat on the bus to a pregnant woman, remove our tray from the table in a food court to assist the cleaning staff, and avoid taking durian on public transport for the sake of fellow travellers! Frankly, this is decent human behaviour we should all be practising to ensure a happy, healthy and safe environment for everyone – ideally without being reminded!  

Dr William Wan, General Secretary of Singapore Kindness Movement says of the Be Greater initiative, We firmly believe Singapore has the potential to be a truly great country, one where Singaporeans treat each other with empathy, compassion and kindness. Every individual on this land has a role to play to make Singapore a great place to live in. Everyone has the potential to be a better and greater version of themselves, no matter where they are on the social strata.”

Dr Wan’s belief that ‘empathy, compassion and kindness’ are universal qualities attainable by everyone is a noble sentiment, and very much in line with Julia Gabriel Education’s values. Cultivating empathy in our children is important for so many reasons, not least of all because it is our children, not us, who will lead the future. 

One of Julia Gabriel Education’s four core values is Relationships (the others are Passion, Balance and Excellence). Why? Because taking the time to nurture and value relationships helps build mutual trust and respect. When we trust those who matter to us or who impact our lives in some way – parents, siblings, teachers, authority figures –  we are more likely to feel valued.  This sense of self-worth and healthy confidence, helps us to learn, grow and achieve. And it is the establishment of these positive relationships that enables us to feel empathy because it encourages helpful, kind and compassionate behaviour. Positive relationships help promote moral and ethical development because we feel invested. 

Fiona Walker, Julia Gabriel Education’s Group Managing Director elaborates, At Julia Gabriel Education we strongly believe that positive relationships are the key to happiness and success in life. To develop positive relationships we need to develop emotional literacy skills. Emotional literacy is defined as ‘the ability to understand your emotions, the ability to listen to others and empathise with their emotions, and the ability to express emotions productively’.”

There is no doubt that today emotional development is as important, if not more, than academic or intellectual development. Studies have shown that children who are empathetic are more likely to succeed at school and consequently in their careers. They are usually socially more confident with a healthy level of self-concept. They are more aware of the world around them and mindful of the consequences of their actions. Employers are increasingly seeking candidates who possess high levels of emotional intelligence because they demonstrate strong communication skills, are good at building relationships and more likely to have a positive influence on a team. Empathy is widely recognised as one of the most important qualities a leader in any field can possess. Thoughtfulness is certainly equal to if not trumps competency! 

But where does empathy come from? Is it a quality that we are born with? Is it innate within every child?  And if not is it a learnable skill?  The answer to all these questions appears to be yes! 

Let’s explore further.

Children from a very young age can learn to be empathetic primarily when they are exposed to an environment which fosters kindness and compassion.  They must experience active listening and be encouraged to explore their feelings, which in turn are then validated. One of the most effective, and in Singapore, most accessible ways to do this is through drama and dramatic play. Whether structured or improvisational, drama and role play activities focus on embracing the imagination, a natural vehicle for children to express their emotions. When this can happen within a communal setting it enables an exchange to take place.

Fiona Walker explains how conversations with our children and sharing stories also help: Discussions about what makes them happy or sad or scared can really help children see that they are never alone as well as ways to understand one another. ‘Me too’ always brings a smile.”

Opportunities to reflect on the feelings of others, the cause and effect between an action and how it makes people feel, needs to be built into everyday activities. 

Stories are a wonderful way to explore feelings. They can be used to spark a discussion with children, predicting for example how a character may feel after something has happened. Acting out stories and scenarios enables children to make sense of the feelings of others in a safe and sympathetic manner.” 

As with adults, not all children are empathic equally and not all will learn empathy to the same degree but it is a learnable skill! Some children are naturally more intuitive at a very early age than others. And research within just the last few years has even found that genetic factors explain about 10 percent of differences in human ability to empathise. (Genome-wide analyses of self-reported empathy…Translational Psychiatry, pub. March 2018). To support these findings, it was discovered that identical twins (identical twins share the same DNA) tend to respond similarly to a given situation or person, compared to fraternal twins, who may not. 

The study of empathy continues to be a growing area of interest for psychologists and neuroscientists who have discovered that the topic of empathy covers a wider spectrum of behaviours than originally believed. 

Humans experience affective empathy from infancy, physically sensing their caregivers’ emotions and often mirroring those emotions. Cognitive empathy emerges later in development, around three to four years of age, roughly when children start to develop an elementary “theory of mind”—that is, the understanding that other people experience the world differently than they do. (Greater Good Science Center)

Humans, like other animal species are mammals whose natural instinct is to nurture their young. When an infant elicits a cry indicating some sort of need or distress, this sends a signal to the mother to respond in a way that satisfies the child. As humans, we have a natural disposition to develop empathy – and to teach it! So the good news is that all children can learn to be empathic. 

Children may begin to exhibit signs of affective empathy around two or three years old, during social interactions. Like many skills, the extent to which a person is able to empathise depends on how they socialise, their role models, experiences, cultural influences and how much they practise. Once they have the tools and awareness of the cause and effect of empathic behaviour, how much they practise it, is a choice they can make.   

The role as teachers in preschool onwards and as parents and caregivers at home plays a huge part in determining the extent to which a child gets to understand and practise empathic behaviour.  When adults empathise with children it helps them to develop secure and trusting attachments. Positive, happy, joyful and safe feelings about something or someone encourages children to want to adopt the same values.

How to cultivate empathy in your child

We’ve learnt that social, cultural and environmental influences, as well as in a small number of cases genetics, influence empathy in children. And that it is a skill that develops at a deeper level over time with practice. (Interestingly, according to research, empathy does not decline with age.) Perhaps your child is already a kind and considerate child by nature!  But what can you do to develop empathy in your child at a deeper level and to ensure it is part and parcel of their behaviour as they move through life? 

Empathise with your child.  Your child is an individual. They are not a carbon copy of anyone else. Avoid the sibling comparison game or declaring in front of them to a neighbour or relative phrases like I don’t know where they get it from!, rather than acknowledging and accepting their preferences. When we dismiss children in this way it merely lowers their self-esteem.

What are their likes and dislikes? What situations makes them feel shy? What circumstances or experiences might trigger difficult behaviour? Establish a relationship with your child from the very start that lets them know they are respected and valued for who they are. Remember that little things to you are magnified to your child, especially when they are very young and have a limited view of the world. The next time your toddler falls over, grazes their knee and cries, rather than respond with Oh, it’s nothing, you’re fine!, acknowledge that it is something to your child, without over dramatising the event. Oh, I’m sorry you fell over. Where does it hurt? Do you think a plaster would make it feel better?”   

Role model empathy. Play is one of the best ways to model empathy, especially when children are small. Soft toys and dolls require love, attention and care too! You may find that your child instinctively wants to put an eye patch over teddy’s sore eye but if not, suggest it. 

You can also be instrumental in your child learning empathy in the way that you think and judge others. If someone has annoyed you or caused you a problem in any way, avoid saying what you might really think out loud in the presence of your child. It’s not easy but a valuable practice for us all! If your child hears you curse a stranger who just took the parking space you had your eye on, or a neighbour, family member or sibling for whatever reason, remember, what you say is what they will repeat back to you at some point. How they perceive others and treat others, more often than not will come from you. Perhaps the driver of the car simply didn’t see you. Maybe someone is having a bad day. Perhaps someone is experiencing pain or sadness at home. We can help our children understand this. 

Similarly, practise kindness, compassion, respect and politeness yourself. You convey one of the most valuable lessons a child can learn when they hear you say “thank you!” to others. 

Provide opportunities.  To cultivate empathy your child must experience situations where empathy is required. Nurturing empathy will help your child develop it. The more chances they have to practise empathy, the more it will become a natural response. Playdates, group activities as a family, playgroups, drama enrichment programmes will inevitably at some point all elicit opportunities to demonstrate empathy. 

Widen your child’s perspective. It is easier to show empathy for our immediate circle of family and friends than it is for those we see as different from us or who live in a region of the world we just can’t fathom living in ourselves. Experiences and exposure, as far as is practical, to a world outside your child’s own will help to develop feelings of interest, care and concern, eventually leading to reflection about what it feels like to be in that situation. Museums and cultural centres, documentaries and different cultural areas from your own, are all useful learning grounds. 

Help your child manage their feelings. Children have to understand their own feelings primarily before they can relate to the feelings of others. When we have a strong concept of how it feels to experience something, whether the resulting emotion is joy, sadness or any other, then we are better able to place ourselves in someone else’s shoes. 

Helping your child manage their emotions as they pass through each milestone is a whole topic in itself but here are just a few things you can do: 

  • talk to your child about how they are feeling.
  • provide an environment in which your child feels safe to express their emotions.
  • acknowledge and validate what they tell you about how they feel.
  • practise mindful activities that encourage relaxation and calm, such as mindful breathing, yoga, listening to music, taking a walk in a park or a garden.
  • use age-appropriate books, picture cards and games to talk to your child about different emotions, ask your child why they think a character or face looks happy, sad, angry etc. 
  • try to determine what triggers a particular emotion in your child and if necessary anticipate it.
  • talk about how you are feeling and model appropriate behaviour in reaction to something yourself. 

…a tussle over a toy or a push in the playground which may end in tears is a chance to understand how our actions can cause pain to another.  Rather than a forced apology that elicits little understanding, it is far better to take the time to really discuss how the other person is feeling. Asking the child to reflect on what he or she did, and looking at how that made the other child feel, can go a long way to developing empathy. Once a child can really understand the feelings of another, they can then give a very genuine and heartfelt apology for their action. – Fiona Walker.

Books! Books! Books!  Share colourful storybooks with your child as part of their bedtime routine. Choose stories that spark conversations about the characters’ behaviour. How did the characters feel as a result? Who and what helped them to feel better? How did the actions in the story make your child feel? Can they relate? With older children, encourage your child to read books with protagonists who exemplify empathetic behaviour or plot lines that demonstrate the benefits of empathy. There are so many wonderful children’s storybooks and novels available that teach children about kindness, compassion and empathy. The classic Charlotte’s Web by EB White and poignant The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate (both for 8-12 years); The Monster Who Lost His Mean by Tiffany Strelitz Haber (for 4-8 years); and Hey Little Ant by Phillip Hoose & Hannah Hoose (for 3-7 years) are just a few. You are bound to have your own favourites that you can either share with your child or recommend to your older child to read. Use them as discussion starters.

Create a caring initiative. The more interested and passionate you are about a subject the more that will rub off on your child. Can you come up with a project of some kind together? If you have more than one child, can they work together to create something that benefits others in some way or reminds others about the importance of kindness and compassion? Projects are a tangible way for children to develop all manner of important skills: creativity, problem solving, mindfulness and responsibility to name a few. You can teach them the value in diversity and difference, how to feel for and help others. What name will you give your caring initiative?

There is no doubt that today’s world would benefit from more kindness, compassion and empathy. And that is down to us!  If, as Barack Obama suggests, Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world, then perhaps it is time to put make this quality a priority to develop in all our children.

 

Refs:

  • Harvard Graduate School of Education: Making Caring Common Project
  • The Psychology of Emotional and Cognitive Empathy, Lesley University
  • Smithsonian Magazine
  • Raising Kind Kids: How To Encourage Empathy, Inclusion, and Compassion, Nurture & Thrive
  • Genome-wide analyses of self-reported empathy: correlations with autism, schizophrenia, and anorexia nervosa, Translational Psychiatry
  • Greater Good Science Center