When Susan Bearman of Evanston asked her kids to choose old toys to send with a friend visiting Ecuador with the charity Causes for Change International, her 11-year-old son Noah decided he wanted to send his favorite childhood stuffed bear. Bearman’s first reaction was to tell him to send something less personal, but she allowed Noah to follow his heart.
During this spontaneous explosion of empathy, Noah also organized a collection at his school resulting in hundreds of items to be sent to the children in Ecuador who were in need.
"I really liked that Noah gave something of himself," says Bearman. "It was different than just collecting random castoffs because this was meaningful."
Your kids can learn to display the same kind of empathy with a little support from you.
Wired for empathy. Even though it wasn’t something she actively taught, Krystyn Irvine of Oak Park was surprised to see her 2-year-old daughter, Ashlynn, show empathy. "If any of her friends were crying she would stop whatever she was doing and get them a tissue to dry their tears."
What’s interesting is that some researchers believe all humans are born hard-wired for empathy.
"MRIs show that when we see another in pain, certain brain cells light up," says Dr. Kim Dell’Angela, clinical psychologist and associate dean of wellness and director of health and psychological services at Harper College in Palatine.
Praise spontaneous empathy. Even if your young children are showing empathy, without encouragement they won’t find motivation to continue. Don’t just witness their good works; tell them how wonderful their actions are.
Bring up the past. If your child is having a hard time understanding why it is important to perceive the feelings of others and act on it, have her remember a time in the past when she felt hurt or left out. Ask her how she felt when someone else understood her and helped her feel better. Sometimes kids find it easier to give once they realize how good it feels.
Wear someone else’s shoes. Dell’Angela, a parent of three, suggests playing a game with your kids to help them grasp the concept of empathy.
"It’s easy to walk down the street and have your kids observe how people are feeling. Study their body language and facial expression to make a determination."
Read a book. For young children, Chicken Soup by Heart by local author Esther Hershenhorn teaches children empathy through a simple story of love between a boy and his sick sitter. Young Rudie makes Mrs. Gittel, the Chicken Soup Queen, his own special chicken soup, stirred with stories of their good times together, to help her get well.
"When books do their job right, they resonate with kids in their hearts," Hershenhorn says.
Illustrate the truth. When Bearman told her kids about the needy children in Ecuador she didn’t just talk about their plight, she went one step more and showed her kids pictures of the children who would benefit from their gifts.
"I didn’t want to point fingers at others in our community as examples of how lucky we are," says Bearman. "This charity gave us the opportunity to view the need in other parts of the world."
Talk it out. Don’t just tell your children to be empathetic and expect it to happen. Have a conversation with them about ways they can show empathy and how to help others. Kids want and need direction from their parents, so don’t expect them to figure it out on their own.
Share your experiences. Take the conversation with your kids one step farther by sharing your encounters with empathy. Parents forget sometimes to disclose their feelings to their kids, but children need to hear how their parents feel, too. Choose an instance they can relate to, such as someone spontaneously helping you at work on a tough day. Tell them how good it felt to have caring co-workers.
Show empathy. During the daily grind, parents might yell at or punish their kids without pausing to think about what the kids are going through. Showing empathy directly to your children will be noticed, but that doesn’t mean that upholding order suffers.
"Parents sometimes think that showing empathy to their kids, even when they need to be punished, means that they are too soft," says Dell’Angela. "It’s just not true. You can validate their feelings and still expect better behavior."
Don’t expect perfection. Everyone has days when they don’t act their best and kids are just as susceptible. If your child shows empathy towards others on most days, a few missed moments won’t hurt. Failed opportunities just give you one more example to talk about when you’re helping your kids discover how to be at their best.
Michelle Sussman is a mom, wife and writer in Bolingbrook. You can visit her Web site at michellesussman.com.