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Monday, January 16, 2017

Fostering Empathy

Empathy. I've been thinking about empathy a lot lately for a variety of reasons, and today I wanted to talk about fostering empathy as parents. I've always been very conscious of wanting to encourage my daughters to be highly empathic people. I'm not a psychologist or parenting expert, so these are just my personal thoughts on how I think empathy was fostered in my own character and what things I am consciously doing to foster empathy for my daughters.


The first and most important component that comes to mind is being physically present in places where you are not in the majority, whether that be in race, nationality, gender, worldview, religion, or otherwise. Obviously empathy comes directly out of understanding the "other", and there is no substitute for being physically present in the place where they live and breath when it comes to growing in our understanding a person or people group outside of who we are. In practical terms, this means I have been deliberate about where I live and where my children and I spend our time. The girls' school and neighborhood are very diverse. Having grown up as a foreigner in 3 different continents myself, I know that having someone come into your sphere and talk to you, whether that's a guest speaker in your classroom or a visitor in your home (as helpful as that can be as a starting point), can't take you out of your element and into another world in the same way that planting yourself in a setting where you can see their worldview being worked out in everyday life can. And while you can grow in understanding by talking to people, until you are physically in "their space" and put in the position of learning to live within that space, it is hard not to think of those other people groups as distant or "other" from who you are to some degree. It is always so encouraging for me to hear my daughters come home talking about the people they meet at school in a very matter-of-fact way. I know that growing up with an awareness that different people do things and think about things in different ways will serve them well.

Another component of encouraging empathy in our children is modeling. We all know that we learn a lot of our worldview, our personalities, and our opinions from what we see the important adults in our lives model for us. More than what they say, it's what we see them act on that has the greatest impact. This is a scary one for me as a mother, because I know how many times I have modeled things that I would never want my daughters to imitate, and I know pretty much every parent has the same worries. But there is also encouragement in knowing that our children learn from and take on a lot of our positive character traits that we model for them just by watching us live out our lives. One thing I have been more conscious of as the girls get older is voicing out loud the thoughts in my head so that they know what I'm thinking and can hear my empathy, my concern and respect for others, etc.

I'm sure there are much more sophisticated and complex ways to foster empathy that I haven't thought of, but I'll end with one final thought: the importance of practicing acceptance before intervention. When we see someone who is upset, we are often quick to want to "fix" the problem to help them stop being upset. Although there is a lot that is right with that instinct, I think it is important to first acknowledge and legitimize what the person is feeling before we launch into trying to change those feelings. Since the girls were tiny, I have been very aware of how often we as adults jump straight to telling crying children that it's OK. Clearly it's not OK- that's why they're crying. And while of course I know (trust me, I have two 5-year-old girls here) that there are very good reasons for comforting children in that way- they need to know that it's actually OK, and that they are more than likely WAY overreacting to whatever has upset them- I think often that can de-legitimize the child's feelings. We do it as adults too. Someone shares something that has deeply hurt them, and we immediately launch into, "have you tried this?", and "well at least_____" before taking the time to simply be with them in their pain. I still catch myself doing this with my daughters and my friends, but I want to continue to try to remember to legitimize/accept/acknowledge their feelings in a real, non-cursory way before offering any help.

I hope these thoughts will spark some thoughts and conversations about how we can all continue to foster emphathy in our children and in our own lives! If you have thoughts on the subject, I'd love for you to leave a comment below.


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