My son asked me last night what I was going to be writing about today. I’d just been reading this piece in the New York Times about how parents can raise empathetic children, and it had struck a chord with me. As a parent, I desperately want to raise my son to be the sort of person who steps up when others are in need, but is that something I can truly influence?
“I’m going to write about how parents can help their kids become empathetic,” I said. “Do you know what that word means?”
He didn’t, so I explained that when you have empathy, you can understand and care about how someone else feels. “It’s what causes people to want to help each other,” I explained.
“Ohhhhh, are you gonna write about me? I have empathy,” he said.
This is a kid who, at 8 years old, just joined the “junior board” of a non-profit organisation that grants wishes for kids in foster care. Last week, on a school night, we drove three hours roundtrip so he could attend his first “meeting.”
He and his fellow board members decorated stockings and bagged treats for a Christmas party organised to bring together siblings who’ve been separated in the system.
Also last week, he spent a good chunk of his own money to grant a wish for a child in care, as well as to donate toys to his school’s toy drive.
He’s always been a sensitive kid, who naturally feels things very deeply. But I have also made it a top priority in our home to practice giving on a regular basis.
We have been foster parents, so Ryan has seen firsthand the trauma these kiddos endure. He has shopped with me for toys for kids in need every year of his life. He puts the money in the red Salvation Army bucket, he carries the canned food into the food drive, he goes through his toys to donate the things he doesn’t play with anymore.
But still, I’ve wondered: Are you born with an empathetic disposition, or is it a learned behaviour? Like with so many aspects of parenting, I’m throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall and hoping some of it sticks.
As it turns out, becoming an empathetic person is a combination of both nature and nurture. We do have some impact on this.
Research by Dr. (Helen) Riess and her collaborators has shown that we are each born with a given number of neurons that participate in an empathetic response. But whether this potential to care appropriately for one’s fellow beings is realised or undermined is largely moulded by early life experiences, starting at birth and continuing throughout childhood.
How, then, can a healthy degree of empathy be instilled in a child? “Empathy is a mutable trait, it can be taught,” Dr. Riess told me. “We’re all born with a certain endowment, but it can be dramatically up-regulated or down-regulated depending upon environmental factors,” especially, she said, by the examples set by a child’s caregivers.
That doesn’t mean you have to run out and become foster parents (although it’s great if you do!). You can start simply by acknowledging your child’s emotions, showing care and modelling helpful behaviour in your community.
That can be as easy as taking a meal to a sick neighbour or having your child help get a Band-Aid when a friend or sibling scrapes their knee, says Dr. Riess, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of “The Empathy Effect.” The book provides guidance for modelling empathy during each stage of your child’s development.
With older children, parents might take them to help out in a soup kitchen or visit a nursing home, Dr. Riess suggested. “It’s never too late to guide a child toward greater appreciation of others’ feelings,” she wrote.
Equally important is for parents to demonstrate empathy with their own children by acknowledging their concerns and feelings and recognising their need for security. For example, she said, “When a child is fearful of a dog, instead of saying ‘Don’t be afraid, he won’t bite you,’ say ‘Are you scared of the dog? What scares you?’ This validates the child’s fears rather than negating them.”
However, Dr. Riess also warns it is possible to take it too far:
Parents should not overreact by being intolerant of “a single second of unhappiness in their child’s life” lest such misguided empathy deprive the child of developing the grit, perseverance and resilience that is essential to a successful life.
I take that to mean more caring, less coddling.