DEVELOPING EMPATHY

Written by JEANNENE S. for Who’s Teaching the Babies?®

As a parent, have you ever taken the time to sit and observe the interactions of your child with other children? We often spend time in their early years observing their play to make sure they don’t bite anyone or scale a bookcase, and also to help them learn how to “give Johnny a turn” and say “please” for that toy train they just grabbed. Admittedly, those years can be tiring with all the vigilance that is required—at least with your first or second child! However, it is all too easy once they become old enough to do things for themselves, to forget that they are still in need of relational guidance. These early years of social interaction help to shape the ways in which our children continue to relate with others throughout their lives.

While we certainly need to give these powerful, growing people opportunities to learn through making decisions, making mistakes, and working things out through problem solving; we also have to remember each social interaction is an opportunity to be transformed into the image of Jesus.

In order for them to give and receive true joy in their relationships all the way through adulthood, it’s important for them to grow beyond how to just come out unscathed in their interactions. The exciting news is, when we really begin to make this the priority—being transformed into the image of Jesus—we’ll give our kids, their peers, and ourselves opportunity and mercy to grow in our relationships—even if it means making a mistake or two.

For a Christian parent, the earliest and best relational advice for getting along with others usually includes the golden rule. We often remember to tell our children this rule when we find out they have lost their self-control on another kid in class or on a sibling. It automatically comes to mind in response to the endless reasons our kids find for justifying wrong behavior towards another. We might find ourselves asking them, “how would you feel if Johnny did that to you?” Immediately, kids realize (whether they admit it or not) that they wouldn’t like it, and the discussion is actually over in our minds, as adults. However, we must also remember to walk Johnny through the experience, because the golden rule is also applicable to him in this situation. Actually, he is who the golden rule was speaking to, in context. Take a look at the Message version: “Ask yourself what you want people to do for you; then grab the initiative and do it for them!” (Luke 6:31 MSG). In this passage, Jesus was explaining how to love those that hurt you. He wanted us to understand that if we don’t preserve the freedom to love that Jesus has given us in our hearts, it won’t be long until we begin lose our capacity to love, and find ourselves justifying our wrong behavior instead of surrendering it, to continue to be transformed.

It doesn’t mean we won’t have our moments of wrong behavior, but what it does mean is that when our hearts reflect on how other people must feel—what their experience is, what their capacity is, and what we would like from others if we were them—we will willingly surrender all justification that keeps our wrongs, right. Our eyes and hearts will continue to become free and clear of what holds us back, as we quit focusing on justifications and start focusing on who we want to become. The golden rule requires a true transformation of the heart, not just behavior—because behavior is easily reasoned, but transformation of the heart doesn’t seek its own. We can help our children to see and to be encouraged on this journey to transformation when we put ourselves in the shoes of another—not just how another feels, but also how even we have probably done the same harmful thing as another (even if in a different way), ourselves.

 

Putting ourselves in the shoes of another is also called, empathy. “While we are born hardwired with the capacity for empathy, its development requires experience and practice.”[1] So, in the midst of giving our children loving, safe, and Biblically grounded homes; we also need to take advantage of those opportunities to first acknowledge personal feelings and thoughts. Then, once self-awareness happens, we can apply the golden rule to take initiative towards loving others—no matter their actions.

A person that learns to tell themselves the truth about how they feel and think, not just how they should feel and think, is able to take initiative to love others in that way—whether or not they do what they should. A simple thing we often remind our son is, “another person’s actions is no excuse for your actions,” whether he is the offender or offended. When we are able to identify where we end and another person begins, we realize we are not only free from the compulsion of others, but also free to help another.

Here are some practical tips on how to develop empathy in your child. For more information on these tips, check out Walsh Associates’ Mind Positive Parenting[2]:

 

  • Help your children recognize and identify their emotions
  • Make yourself available for one-on-one time with you children
  • Remind your children to put themselves in the shoes of another. Opportunities for this are even through story books and television shows/movies.
  • Acknowledge and encourage kind behavior, and have your children reflect on the consequences of their behavior towards others.
  • Choose positive and encouraging media over violent or insensitive. Choose media that encourages prosocial behavior.
  • “Set loving limits and consequences based on respect and responsibility.”[3]

[1] Erin Walsh, M.A., “How Do Children Develop Empathy?” Mind Positive Parenting, last accessed on January 17, 2017, http://drdavewalsh.com/posts/204.

[2] Erin Walsh, M.A., “Teaching Empathy,” Mind Positive Parenting, last accessed on January 17, 2017, http://drdavewalsh.com/posts/tips/62.

[3] Erin Walsh, M.A., “Teaching Empathy,” Mind Positive Parenting, last accessed on January 17, 2017, http://drdavewalsh.com/posts/tips/62.

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