“I can imagine exactly how you feel!” Understanding empathy

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Publication Date
December 27, 2016

Empathy is at the heart of what it means to be human.

Harvard University’s Making Caring Common project provides a clear understanding of empathy. Understanding the importance of empathy is key in preventing bullying and for developing healthy and positive relationships. Building skills to support empathetic behavior is incredibly important in helping children become successful adults.

Empathy is not only the ability to understand another perspective but also to value other perspectives and people. Sometimes it’s easier, especially for children, to feel empathy than to know what it is. This video from Sesame Street features actor Mark Ruffalo and Murray the Muppet figuring out just what empathy is.

It’s important to start learning about empathy early and for parents to keep encouraging and building empathy in kids as they grow. Harvard University’s Making Caring Common project outlines five keys for teaching and building empathy with children in their Cultivating Empathy guide. Here is one example directly from the project with practical tips that parents can use.

Provide opportunities for children to practice empathy
Children are born with the capacity for empathy, but it needs to be nurtured throughout their lives.
Learning empathy is in certain respects like learning a language or a sport. It requires practice and guidance. Regularly considering other people’s perspectives and circumstances helps make empathy a natural reflex and, through trial and error, helps children get better at tuning into others’ feelings and perspectives.

Try this

  • Having family meetings. Hold family meetings when there are family challenges or conflicts, and in those meetings give children a voice and encourage them to take the perspective of other family members. Listen carefully to your children’s views and ask your children to listen carefully to the views of others.
  • Encouraging empathy for peers. Ask children about their classmates and other peers. Ask children when they’re in conflicts with peers to consider their peers’ perspectives.
  • Reflecting on empathy and caring. Notice with your child when you’re together and someone exhibits strong empathy—or shows a lack of empathy—either in your daily life or in a book or on television. Discuss why acts of empathy are important and why lacking empathy can be harmful.
  • Discussing ethical dilemmas. Discuss with your child ethical dilemmas that help them appreciate various perspectives, e.g., “Should I invite a new neighbor to my birthday party when my best friend doesn't like her?” “Should I tell my friend if I know her boyfriend, who is also my friend, cheated on her?”
  • Supporting doing with, not doing for. Encourage children not just participate in community services activities and seek to “do for” others, but to “do with” others. Working with diverse groups of students to respond to community problems builds a sense of accomplishment and also improves empathy.

You can read the full list of tips on the Making Caring Common project website.

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