It can be hard to truly listen to other’s perspectives, particularly if they are far removed from one’s own experience or if they document pain that has been ignored for generations. But so many of society’s inequalities result from a failure to listen and empathize with other perspectives. This is an oversimplification, of course, but when people listen — really listen — and empathize, things can improve.
That makes it all the more important to teach children how to listen and empathize. Today’s children will still be sorting through issues of justice when they enter adulthood, and the way a child is raised helps determine the kind of adult they become. So what can parents do to help raise kids who listen with empathy and emotional intelligence and can change their minds? It requires an ongoing conversation at every age.
Infancy: Be There For Your Baby
The seeds of empathy are planted during infancy, when neurological development is very sensitive to parental behavior. In fact, so many systems are developing in babies that even something as simple as changing a diaper reinforces socialization.
“A basic concept here is ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’ — so when there is a diaper change, for example, all sorts of things happen: eye gazing, soothing speech, and relief of displeasure of a mushy diaper,” says Brit Creelman, a clinical psychologist at Allendale Association’s outpatient therapy clinic in Chicago.
Creelman adds that these social interactions happen in the context of needs being met, and regulation being supported, “with all this coming together in such a way that neurologically the brain starts to develop and become hard wired for well-regulated social interaction — the foundation building blocks for empathy.”
Early Childhood: Lead By Example, Focus On Empathy
Children in early childhood tend toward an egocentric moral position; they only understand the world from their own perspective, and they form their moral positions based on what their family rewards as good behavior. This isn’t an indication of a bad kid — it’s simply how kids figure out the world. But it also presents parents with an excellent opportunity to nurture empathetic behaviors by modeling them.
“The best way to raise empathetic kids is to do so by example,” says Lea Lis, an adult and child psychiatrist and author of No Shame: Real Talk With Your Kids About Sex, Self-Confidence, and Healthy Relationships. Express emotions, talk about feeling sad, discuss making mistakes, listen intently to your kids and others, and your children will learn from watching you. Modeling is paramount.
“Children often understand their emotional reality only in the context of others,” says Lis. “They also understand if they will get into trouble, but have not really internalized why they must behave.” Parents, therefore, must model and explain why it is important to do the right thing, even if they won’t get into trouble.
Certain tools can help young children better understand empathy and the world in general, such as reading fiction and discussing the feelings characters might have experienced during a particular moment. Feelings charts can help increase emotional vocabulary. Lis recommends social stories, which are narrative templates that allow children to run through various social situations and understand how to navigate them. Social stories often offer perspectives, discuss the feelings and opinions of multiple characters. “They help children grasp social norms, routines, and expectations, like walking down the hall, using restroom facilities, following lunch procedures, using manners, using greetings, asking for help properly,” she says.
Grade Schoolers: Model Behavior, Validate Feelings
As children grow older and enter grade school, the social circle that influences their ideas of morality can expand. And although that can create problems, parents still wield an incredible amount of influence. Even older kids who are internalizing their ideas of right and wrong still watch parental cues. Moms and dads must therefore reinforce those cues by asking questions and genuinely listening to their children. Parents should make sure that listening includes allowing their children to feel their feelings, even if that’s unpleasant. Validating feelings is crucial, as brushing them off teaches kids to ignore and internalize them.
“When a child is afraid, for example, it is probably more helpful to say things like ‘I see you are scared, tell me about it’ rather than glossing it over with comments like ‘Don’t worry, you don’t have anything to be afraid of,’” says Creelman. “When a parent acknowledges and names feelings, this helps a child feel understood. Feeling this from others helps build the ability to do this when interacting with others later on, which is a foundational component of empathy.”
Adolescence: Get Your Kids Involved
Adolescence is often when kids start to address more complicated moral ideas, such as the concept of the ‘white lie.’ Once they are able to consider another person’s perspective, lying to preserve their feelings becomes a legitimate moral question.
This is not the time to shelter kids. It’s a time for them to read more, to get involved, to learn from experience. This can include volunteering at a soup kitchen, going to a rally for the underprivileged, raising money for a disadvantaged group, or tutoring low-income children for free.