Ask yourself the following question: What qualities do I most want my child to possess as they grow to be an adult?
Is it maths skills, or scientific knowledge, or an ability to win at every sporting fixture they play in, or is it kindness, confidence, courage, character, and the wisdom to have healthy and happy relationships?
What does being a successful parent look like to you?
Research shows us that empathy is essential to building healthy relationships with family and friends and to doing well at work and school.
It makes sense. After all, if you have a choice of working with someone who is kind, respectful, and considerate or with someone who has little or no regard for your thoughts or feelings, who would you choose?
However, we live in a selfie society, where outside image, material wealth, and the number of followers and likes you have on social media are often applauded above character. Young children too often fight to be first and better than their siblings. Me first! I beat you to it! I’ve got the best ice cream, the biggest pancake, the best seat in front of the telly, the coolest trainers, etc, etc etc!
As humans we are competitive by nature but society is fuelling a narcissism that is pushing us apart.
In a world that encourages self-centredness, active determination is required to raise empathic children. If we want to build a better world, though, it’s a battle worth fighting for. For society to thrive now, and in the future, we need consciously to teach our children to be empathetic and to use their emotional intelligence.
So, what is empathy and how do you teach it? Empathy (feeling with someone) often gets confused with sympathy (feeling sorry for someone).
Empathy is about keeping quiet and letting someone else speak, asking questions, feeling with that person by being connected and genuinely interested in what they have to say.
In my work as a primary school education consultant, I help whole school communities to come together to develop their emotional intelligence and become more cohesive, compassionate, and understanding of each other to build a strong team that works well together.
The first training session is with all members of staff from every department including the admin team and the caretakers. The aim of the session is to create a document that represents how everyone wants to feel at school and what behaviours they will use to make this happen. Our emotions affect every area of our lives and if they are not right then nothing much else is. When everyone works together as a supportive, caring team the school becomes a safer, kinder, and more empathetic environment, one where people feel they can bring their authentic selves to work every day. The teachers take the same model into the classroom to create safe, supportive classes full of children who will look out for each other instead of the opposite. Bullying then becomes a thing of the past.
I also specifically help teaching staff to develop empathy amongst the children by unpacking current, future, or past tricky events from the different perspectives of those involved. By looking at the issue from everyone’s perspective using empathy and understanding, problems can be resolved to get the best out of any situation and the child learns more about themselves and others in the process.
So, what can you do at home to raise empathetic and emotionally intelligent children?
Children are like sponges. If you model empathy, then your children are likely to be empathetic too. Start by really listening to your child when they need your support. Be 100% present for them in their experience, immerse yourself in their story, and use your imagination to feel how they are thinking and feeling. Validate their feelings, acknowledge their experience as theirs, encourage them to problem solve.
Show your children how you are empathetic to yourself too
Show them how you are kind to yourself when you get something ‘wrong’. This will help them to show themselves the same forgiveness and in doing so will help them build their sense of self-belief, emotional resilience, and trust in their own decision making.
Get your children to close their eyes and imagine what it must feel like to walk in someone else’s shoes.Then ask them to tell you what it feels like. It’s important for them to put into words what they think and verbally acknowledge another person’s feelings.
Help your children understand that all feelings are natural
We are human after all. However, some emotions are definitely feel more comfortable than others, it’s how we regulate our feelings and what we do with our them that matters. Show your children how you regulate your own emotions.
Make space for your children to talk about their feelings
Validate their experience for what it is. Don’t try to fix your child’s problems help them to problem solve themselves with your support.
Help your children develop a rich and nuanced emotional vocabulary
So they can “Name it to tame it” as Dr. Dan Siegel suggests.
Spend time reading and discussing characters in books
Ask them why they think the different characters behave in the way that they do, what motivates them, how do they feel, what has made them feel that way. Analyse, get curious get them to imagine what they would do in the same situation.
Make your family a team
Where everyone participates and contributes to doing the household chores, cooking, cleaning, gardening, hoovering, sweeping, laundry, dog walking etc!
Make doing things for charity a normal family thing
Fundraise, volunteer, help at the local food bank, soup kitchen, look after your neighbours, actively build community wherever you live. This type of giving will then become a natural part of your children’s lives and as they grow it will be the norm for them that no matter how little or how much they have they will still give away something, even if it’s their time.
Challenge yourself to consciously look for your children’s thoughtful actions and the kind actions of others and say something about it when you notice.
Make sure your children know that their character is more important than their achievements
Specifically praise them when they choose to do the right and honourable thing.
Don’t give up
Keep at it, persistence, repetition, and consistency are game changers when parenting is concerned.
Above all teach your children that it’s our job as citizens of the world to look out for each other, the world’s not here to serve us as individuals, we are here to support, care for and look after each other.