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Age & Stage
Our culture de-values empathy. Instead, there’s an emphasis on choosing to feed narcissism and apathy. Because of this, it’s more important than ever to teach our kids about empathy.
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
If you’ve ever had difficulty understanding empathy, you’re not alone. In the past few years, empathy has become a dynamic term to mean a variety of things. At the same time, our culture seemingly de-values empathy instead choosing to cultivate narcissism, apathy, or even hatred. Because of this, it’s more important than ever to teach our kids about empathy.
Traditionally, anti-empathy culture is exclusively reserved for those individuals who intentionally choose hateful and harmful behavior toward someone who is struggling. Further, anti-empathy culture contains the corners of internet users who use their platforms to spread hateful words and even bully people.
When faced with situations where someone expresses intense emotions or thoughts, an anti-empathy culture chooses to mock, demean, and poke fun. Even, the American Psychological Association notes that as empathy declines, narcissism and pride rise in an anti-empathy culture.
However, these trends continue their growth even outside of the established circles of anti-empathy culture. Recently, prominent Christian platforms have promoted a controversial idea that “empathy is a sin.” In another article, the stance against empathy focuses on the glorification of “total immersion into the pain, sorrow, and suffering of the afflicted.” Part of the critique against empathy centers on the idea that one must detach from their beliefs, values, and reason to effectively support and encourage someone in distress.
However, Jesus’s views on empathy contrast the values of an anti-empathy culture. Teaching our kids about empathy can begin with the Bible’s principles, starting with Jesus commandment in John 15:12: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
The importance of teaching our kids about empathy is woven throughout the Bible. Someone with empathy feels the joys and pains of another. When approached thoughtfully, someone with empathy enters into another’s feelings demonstrating support and understanding.
Look to Jesus’ life and ministry as an example of empathy. Jesus displays empathy on multiple occasions within the Gospels. Mark 6:34 says, “When He went ashore he saw a great crowd, and He had compassion on them…” In another instance, Luke 7:13 says, “And when the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’”
In these moments, Jesus displays deep emotions centered on compassion and empathy toward others. Jesus genuinely feels someone’s unique and crippling pain. And this truth extends directly to you and our children. In Isaiah 54:8, the Lord says, “…with everlasting love I will have compassion on you.’”
It helps to understand how empathy is given to us. 1 John 4:19 says, “We love because He first loved us.” The Lord empathizes with us so that we may empathize with others. Teaching our kids about empathy begins with this realization. From here, we can help our kids manage their thoughts and feelings to cultivate those feelings towards others.
As a parent, you are your child’s first role model! Whether they are always engaged or not, they watch, listen, and observe your behavior more than you know. When teaching your kids about empathy, remember that you can model healthy emotional intelligence.
Help your children learn to manage their internal thoughts and feelings through asking specific questions. Such as: “What are you feeling right now?” or “What makes you feel that way?” Remember that your tone and facial expressions often convey more meaning than your words.
Alongside asking key questions, be sure to include positive, supportive phrases directed towards your kids. Such as: “I’m so sorry” or “Please tell me more” or “I see how that is hard for you.” These phrases help our kids see that we support them and are present with them.
Aside from asking personal questions and focusing on our kids’ situations, you can use examples such as books, movies, and family members to teach kids about empathy. Use these examples to help your kids practice managing their thoughts and emotions.
Your parenting strategies matter. The family culture you create matters. Consider these strategies to support your ability to teach your kids about empathy.
Teaching kids about empathy does not have to be a guessing game. Show your kids that asking caring questions can be their best friend. When someone expresses intense emotions, it’s okay to ask them to explain the situation or their feelings as much as they’re willing to.
Instead of staying silent and choosing to judge someone because of their emotional behavior, show your kids they can take a moment to think through the situation. Teach your kids to ask themselves questions such as:
Remember, the goal is not to be perfect. Demonstrate that you are continuing to learn and grow just as you want your kids to develop their empathy. Acts of kindness such as serving others or encouraging your kids will help foster a culture of empathy. Model how to appropriately hold back hurtful comments or filter your social media responses.
Once you’ve established positive moments, then you can help your kids understand disrespectful behavior. Again, you can use family situations, books, or movies to teach your kids about when others are not empathetic.
When your kids express their emotions or see other people’s emotions, they’re grappling with new ideas and potential vulnerabilities. These moments are critical to developing your child’s empathy, as well as strengthening your relationship with them.
Avoid lecturing your children on what they should think or feel. Rather, help guide them to unpack their own perspective or point of view. Chances are, your kid might feel confused, scared, or worried.
So, help your child step into the shoes of their friends. Instead of pointing out emotions that others express, ask your child questions such as: “What did their facial expressions tell you about their feelings?” or “What do you think they’re feeling?”
For younger kids, consider creating a Care Center to keep in your home or their backpack. Dr. Beck Bailey, founder of the program Conscious Discipline, describes a Care Center as a simple box containing items to demonstrate empathy. These can include Kleenex, Band-Aids, or a small stuffed animal. Then, when your kids notice a sibling, friend, or parent who might be crying or seems sad, they can use the Care Center to show empathy.
When neighbors or family members go through tough situations, sometimes making a meal or treat can help encourage them! As a family, think about who you could bless by baking a batch of cookies or making your favorite meal. Then, as a family, drive or walk to their home and deliver the meal to those people in need. Taking it one step further, motivate your kids to write letters of support and encouragement.
For older kids, getting involved in volunteer work can be an excellent way to teach empathy towards others. Consider your kid’s passions so that they can choose a place to volunteer that they will enjoy. If you’re able, volunteer alongside your kids to show that you support their passions too.
Despite a growing anti-empathy culture, we still can teach our kids about empathy. Cultivating the life skill of empathy takes time. Continue to commit yourself to guiding your kid towards treating others with kindness, encouragement, and empathy.
© 2021 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.