Seven year old Viviana, (my oldest daughter) sat in the mulch at the base of the slide, watching as the other kids ran by, laughing and playing. Whenever any of the kids got a little too close, she would ask them to be careful: “Please- you’ll scare her…. she’s protecting her babies.” Vivi had the self-appointed position of bodyguard, and she was taking it seriously; she wasn’t going to allow anyone near the mother duck, who had unfortunately laid her eggs under the stairs of the slide. While Vivi gets into the normal sibling and friend squabbles, one of my favorite qualities is her authentic empathy towards others.
Recently, I saw an article from UC-Berkley that posed the question “Can empathy reduce racism?” It summarized a recent study, suggesting that understanding others’ perspectives permits us to reduce our unconscious biases. Not only that, this ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes improved everyday interactions with people of different races. The Asia Society Partnership for Global Learning and the Council of Chief State School Officers has developed a matrix of four key abilities of global competency:
- investigate the world
- recognize perspectives
- communicate ideas
- take action
We are living in an interconnected world, where our children will work and interact with people from a multitude of cultures. If parents want to raise children who are accepting of all ethnicities — and if empathy helps to eliminate racism — how can families teach this compassion to their children as they grow up?
What is empathy?
By definition, it is the awareness that another person (or any living thing) is suffering. Children with empathy understand what others are feeling and look at things from their perspective- and wish to relieve their pain and help to better the situation. Teaching kids about empathy is not just to feel sorry for someone; it’s moving beyond sadness or pity, and aspiring to change it. One way that kids learn empathy is through their journey of learning about other cultures and differing perspectives. Being able to truly step into another person’s shoes will inevitably show us that we all have similarities on some level.
How else can parents teach a child to be empathetic and compassionate towards others?
Children who have grown up in loving environments have some inherent compassion, because they been nurtured and have had their needs met. Our environments, and especially our parents’ actions shape young children and build the foundation of their personality. Children develop empathy as they witness kindness towards others, respect for other cultures and races, and examples of how to stand up for what’s right in the face of discrimination. As parents and caretakers model compassion and empathy towards their partners, children, friends, and even strangers, we demonstrate how to put our feelings into an action that helps the person suffering and alleviates their situation. Our children observe our empathy when we assist someone who just dropped their groceries, return a phone left behind, stop a joke based on stereotypes, bring dinner to a new mom, or stick up for kids who are getting picked on. We are the model from which are children learn.
Besides modeling kindness every day, another wonderful way to teach by example is by volunteering together as a family. We have tried to get involved in volunteering with the kids from a young age. In Acapulco, we spent a day at a local children’s home to play with the kids, set up a basketball hoop and help them make Christmas cards. In fact, most visits abroad we involve our kids in packing donations for orphanages and schools: what toys would the kids enjoy? What school supplies would the children need? Collecting the donations, we try to teach our kids to put themselves in the shoes of others and relate to them as peers.
This year, we also visited a couple of local foster homes for refugee children who are unaccompanied minors. I wanted to make a conscious effort to show that difficult situations do not only occur outside of our country- but in fact in our own backyard. Just as I don’t want our kids to associate poverty only with certain countries, I also don’t want them to grow up so sheltered that they don’t realize there are families and children right here who need help.
Before arriving, I tried to prepare my kids by giving them a little background. As I explained that we would be making a craft and sharing a snack with kids who are here without their families, their eyes grew serious. They vowed to help the kids have a fun afternoon — not because they would be rewarded or punished, but because they understood that this was the generous and kind thing to do. Although shy at first, everyone warmed up quickly. Ricky’s silly antics elicited laughter, Vivi’s genuine compliments about the girls’ hairstyles drew shy smiles, Maya respectfully listened to the kids talk, and Tonito and his new friend from the DR Congo found common ground in their interest in cars.
On the ride home, the kids were quietly looking out their windows, wheels spinning as they processed the experience. We left the group home feeling inspired and a bit euphoric. As parents, we are used to teaching and re-teaching lessons- sometimes knowing we won’t see the results until much later. By planting the seeds of compassion throughout their childhood through modeling behavior and nurturing experiences, we are helping to develop their moral character and empathy.
One day last spring my son came running home from school: “There’s a new boy at school, and he doesn’t know anybody! We have to invite him over so that he can meet some friends!” Though we can’t measure empathy in standardized tests (phew, fortunately!), experiences like these tell us we’re on the right path.