How can I help my child empathise with others?
Updated: May 10, 2019
As a parent, have you been in a situation where your child wouldn't share his/her belongings with other kids?
I absolutely was! My 3 year old wouldn't share any of her belongings with other children whom she met in our neighbourhood. She would also take away others’ belongings. She would cry, shout and scream if we asked her to return them. I was worried about this behaviour of hers and wondered how I can help her share and be kind to others.
An year ago, when she started going to the daycare, her educators pointed out that not sharing is a normal behaviour for children.
But, I saw that there were children at the other end of the spectrum too. They would selflessly and happily give away their toys for other kids to play. I wondered what these children had in their minds that helped them exhibit this behaviour.
I found my answer by researching and talking to people. The key was Empathy. I realised that feelings of love, kindness, sharing and caring stems from Empathy.
What is Empathy?
Empathy implies that we are able to imagine what somebody else is feeling, then respond in a caring manner that’s human and brings comfort over an ill feeling. Empathy is a skill. We propagate it with application. Most kids between 3-8 years can discern that others have intuition and feelings that are different than theirs, and that actions and words can have an impact on the emotions of others.
Is my child too young to learn about Empathy?
Kids begin to grasp empathy when very young. A fact is we’re all born with the cognitive mechanism to learn it. Newborns, for example, will cry when other newborns cry, and they can show signs of sadness or curiosity when their parents appear sad - albeit they don’t understand what’s happening.
Beginning from the age of three, it is attainable to speak to them concerning imaginary scenes:
How would you feel if someone took away your candy?
How do you think a friend will feel if they had their toy taken?
These conversations will enable the budding toddlers to perceive that others, just like they, have their own emotions.
Between the ages of 5 to 8, children would begin to learn that people tend to have emotions completely different from theirs within the same scenario. Someone could be frightened of things they are not frightened of, someone could be irritated by things that don’t trouble them. It’s at this age that we are able to begin to show kids to use empathy rather than instinctive emotional responses in various situations.
When is the right time to talk about Empathy with a child?
When my little girl gets angry, she gets very rude. She starts beating and shouting. She says things like “I do not like daddy anymore”. To talk about it, I choose a time later on in the day. I describe the situation and I ask her, “if you were daddy how would you feel in that situation”. She promptly replies “sad”, and gives her explanation. We then have a healthy dialog. I ask her if she wants to apologise. Almost always, she wholeheartedly says "sorry" and gives a big hug.
The key here is finding the right time to talk about the situation. The child needs to be calm and relaxed. I usually spend the time just before going to bed - it has now become a routine. My daughter would be settled after her bedtime story. She knows that at this time I would either talk about some of her good deeds or some things that she could improve upon. She is open to listen and I have her complete attention to talk about empathy and other topics.
Repeating such conversations with the child helps him/her understand and think of other’s perspective. Over a period of time, they would put themselves in someone else’s shoe more often to understand the other person, handle situations better and build strong social relationships.
Here is a picture story book for little children to help them learn about Empathy. It shows a child how to look at a situation from someone else's perspective.