Bestselling author and mother – Kiran Manral talks about five ways to raise an empathetic child.
As the mom of a teenage boy, I battle forces that keep bombarding my son with a concept of masculinity. This involves being stoic, being ‘macho’ all of which are in direct conflict with what is necessary to be empathetic. As a mother to raise an empathetic child is not an easy task. In order to be empathetic, he has to understand and acknowledge the emotion, both his own and that of another. To show empathy, he needs to begin disregarding what pop culture and social conditioning keep reinforcing, the idea of masculinity. And it does not involve caring or being empathetic and demonstrative of affection or emotion. For that, first, he needs to be secure in himself.
He needs to not be swayed by what is constantly being fed to him in the name of being a ‘boy’ or a ‘man’. He needs to learn that another person’s feelings and emotions are important and as valid as his are. You can teach empathy to your children.
HOW TO TEACH:
While some children are more emotional and sensitive than others, teaching empathy to children is not impossible. Children do have a natural sense of feeling another person’s emotions. This is called ‘affective empathy’ and we can see this in young babies as well as animals. It will help to raise an empathetic child. This natural inclination is what we need to build upon. A toddler might understand that his playmate is upset. He may try to comfort him and make him feel better by offering him something from his snack box. As they grow older, children understand that they might have done something to upset another child. They are also able to sympathize with another child’s hurt and pain if they fall down or get injured.
They might also be able to make amends or try and ameliorate the situation. Some children are natural empaths. They feel more strongly. They have, what we understand as sensory overload, they might find it difficult to handle too much sensory input, they experience emotions more deeply and get more stressed out when they experience another person’s distress.
Some might not have this level of sensitivity, with these the task is a tad tougher, first, you need to start teaching them how to read expressions, understand non-verbal cues and decipher unstated statements, to understand if someone is in distress and needs help. With sons, you might have a double task, that of ensuring they both understand and reject the toxic masculinity that the world puts out for them to deal with and imbibe. And make sure that they see the value in being empathetic and considerate as a necessary human trait, amongst both men and women, both boys and girls.
How to Raise an Empathetic Child: 5 Ways You Must Know
One of the best ways to raise an emphatic child is effective communication As parents you should have conversations that allow your son to express and explore all his emotions, including sadness, fear, anxiety, and those on the opposite end of the spectrum, which includes joy, delight, calmness. Learning to name an emotion and associate it with a feeling makes it possible for a child to understand what they are undergoing, and as a consequence be able to understand what another person is going through because they have confronted it themselves. Learn, as a parent, to be a non-judgmental listener. Listen without censure, without judgment, without shaming the child. This is perhaps the most difficult thing to do and all we need to do is just listen.
And yes, even just listening to another person without judging, without censure, is a form of empathy your child will pick up from you.
Don’t pressurize him to ‘act like a boy’ or to ‘be a man. Let them know that feelings and emotions can be expressed, and being an empathetic child is not a bad thing. And it doesn’t make him any less of a person. And that he shouldn’t be judgemental of any others who are emotional and visibly upset. It is normal and human to display emotion, what you need to train him to do is how to respond appropriately to that display of emotion in a positive manner.
We as parents try often to shield our children from the grimmer side of life. This might feel like we are protecting them from unpleasantness, but in fact, this is also how we stifle their emotional responses to others in distress or other people experiencing pain, deprivation, and cruelty. Perhaps the most famous example of this would be that of Prince Siddhartha who had been protected from all unpleasantness from illness to deformity, to poverty, to old age and death all through his life. When he grew up and was suddenly confronted with all that he had been shielded from through his growing years, it came as a complete shock to him, so much that it compelled him to leave home, his palace, his parents, his wife, his newborn child, in search of the answers to his questions on the human condition.
He became Gautama Buddha. While it may not be appropriate to expose very young children to gory and gruesome images of suffering, what one encounters every day can definitely be spoken about. The dispossessed and poor on our streets, the orphans in orphanages, the stories about the migrants during our recent lockdown. Have these conversations, tough as they might be.
Let him understand
Beyond the protected life he leads, there is another world. This world has other children like him who don’t have one-tenth of what he does. They have to fight their way to survive. Make caring for others a priority Simple things like learning to share, being considerate of another person’s needs, putting other people first when deciding on something should be something you encourage rather than making your child feel he is the center of the universe and everything revolves around him. One of the best ways to do this is to get a pet and involve your child in pet care. Caring for another living creature is a great way to raise an empathetic child. And given that a pet cannot verbalize how they are feeling, it helps children understand nonverbal cues and respond to those as well.
If you have elderly persons in your home or neighborhood, you could have your child help them down the stairs, accompany them for short walks, to regular health checkups, to the store, give them the responsibility of ensuring they take their medicines on time, anything that is age-appropriate but involves them being responsible and caring for another human being at a different stage in life will help develop empathy and caring. Also, expand their circle of concern from those in their immediate vicinity. Talk to them about those they may not be in direct contact with but who could do with their help.
Involve them in sponsoring the education of an underprivileged child. You should take them to a street school, have them donate their clothes and toys in good condition to charity. The simple gestures of learning to think about others and their needs, and to constantly ask oneself how can one help is a wonderful first step towards developing empathic abilities.
Use news, stories, and story-telling to encourage empathy. Children consume stories, a lot of them. From books, from television, from movies, from orally narrated tales from us, from grandparents. Storytelling is perhaps the most powerful tool to help your child develop empathy. Through storytelling, through stories they watch, read, listen, you can take them into the lives of other people, help them internalize the emotions a character might be feeling. This is a good training ground to develop empathy in a fictional space.
Stories and storytelling create an internal moral compass that helps children know what is right from what is wrong. You can also use newspaper reports and news items to initiate conversations to help the child developing empathy for others.
Show them how to take action
Do you show genuine concern and reach out to provide emotional support to those in distress? Do you take action in whatever manner you can if someone is in a situation that requires help? Or do you walk away, or stay an onlooker? All the talk about what it means to be an empathetic child is absolute of no use if your child doesn’t see you walking the talk. How do you behave in a situation that demands empathy? Tell him that if another child has fallen down in the playground, he should try to help. If a friend is being bullied, he needs to speak up and stand up for him.
in other situations, if no one is passing the ball to the weak player on the team, he should. If a kid gets into a dangerous situation while performing a stunt and gets hurt, he should call for help. Staying away, or going away from the scene is a natural reaction to protect oneself from not witnessing someone else’s pain.
But teaching kids to stay and to help is something parents must do—explain to them what they would feel like if they were hurt and everyone around went off leaving them to deal with it alone. Tell them to put themselves in that situation. You can teach altruism. But first, altruism must come from empathy. Developing empathy in a child makes for an altruistic adult.
My son is born into certain privileges, and this privilege will cushion him for a fair part of his life. But if I can make him aware of his responsibilities towards those who do not have the benefit of this cushioning, of this privilege, and if he uses his privilege to help those who need help, I will consider it one of my tasks while raising an empathetic child done, and done well.