Nurturing Our Empathetic Nature

Last week, my wife was reading a book to our two-year-old when our newborn son started fussing. Not wanting to disrupt their one-on-one time, my wife told our daughter that the baby was okay and that she would get him just as soon as they finished the story.

But Annie protested: “Baby James is crying. He needs mommy now! Go pick him up.”  In her mind, crying meant sad, and sad kids need mom. Now, there have been dozens of moments in the last month when she has not shown this level of understanding, but this snapshot reminded us that nurturing our children’s innate empathy is perhaps the best gift we can give them. 

Is empathy the result of nature or nurture? Neuroscience from the last decade has made one thing abundantly clear: we are wired to connect with others. But, like any cognitive function, developing empathy requires practice and attention. Here at Trinity Valley School, we also view empathy as a twenty-first century skill: an essential trait of responsible global citizens . . . and responsible students.

Educational psychologist Dr. Patty O’Grady wrote, “A student recently asked me: What is the opposite of bullying? I answered: empathy. The strength of empathy and the weakness of bullying are mutually exclusive actions. There is neuroscience truth to the adage ‘walk a mile in my shoes.’ Bullying and empathy are brain-based behaviors found on opposite ends of the emotional continuum.” (Click here to read more)

So what can adults do to help our children along this path? Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd recently launched a project called “Making Caring Common” aimed at helping parents strengthen empathy in their children. He notes that we often over-focus on a child’s emotions at the expense of helping that child adopt the perspective of others. As he stated in a Washington Post interview:

“We need to get parents to tone down some of that focus on whether their kids are happy and make the higher priority being responsible for others,” he says. “I hear parents noting kids’ moods all the time.” (Are you happy? How did that make you feel? Is this okay with you?) As an unintended result, he argues, children think about their own feelings constantly, and don’t wonder if the new kid in their class is lonely, ask why their mom looks so frazzled or notice when they hurt their little sister’s feelings. (Click here to read more)

Weissbourd’s group offers several practical tips for parents, including: “Make caring for others a primary goal of child-raising.”

Research suggests that modern American parents are often significantly more focused on their children’s self-esteem and happiness than on their concern for others. The intense focus on happiness, as opposed to respect and responsibility for others, appears to be unprecedented in our history. As parents, we can shift the focus back to caring for others in many ways. As a start, instead of telling children, “The most important thing is that you are happy,” we can tell them, “The most important thing is that you are kind, and that you are responsible for others. (Read more here)

In practice, this is easier said than done – especially when adolescent emotions run high.  Parents, teachers, and coaches can play a pivotal role in helping students shift their perspective outward. For example, when our children lose a game or do not receive a coveted part in a play, can they appreciate the achievement of their competition? Are they a good sport, and a full participant, when things do not go their way on a class vote or in a group project? Do they engage themselves fully in conversations with others (without a cell phone in hand) even when it’s not a close friend or topic of personal interest? Do they pay attention to the social dynamics of the group – including who might feel lonely or at odds – and see their responsibility to reach out?

As parents, we truly want our children to be happy.  But, as science and age-old stories tell us, happiness is found both by looking inward and reaching outward.

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