In an age of self-obsessed, snap-chatting, Minecraft-playing youth, you may be wondering how this generation will grow up to be successful adults with healthy relationships. With a long list of virtual friends who rarely meet in person, how do they develop emotional intelligence and learn appropriate social skills? It’s a fact that children who develop the traits of empathy and compassion in their early years are more likely to have fulfilling and productive relationships into adulthood.
Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” It sounds fairly straightforward, but in order to feel true empathy for someone, you must understand your own emotions and be able to recognize social cues. So, how do you nurture this important skill?
Here are some ways to raise empathetic and accountable children in the Selfie Age:
Teach your children to express their emotions. All emotions, including showing anger, fear and frustration, are normal behaviours. Kids need to understand their own feelings and speak about them freely before they can properly empathize with someone else’s emotions. Let them vent and move on as issues occur instead of supressing and internalizing – only to blow up at a later date.
Model and practise empathy yourself. Kids love to emulate parents, so try your best to show empathy for others whenever you can. It can even be with your family’s fur baby. I say: “Kitty seems a little irritable today. Maybe she didn’t have enough sleep.” And my son says: “Yes, she looks tired. I will make sure nobody wakes her up from her nap.” Imaginative play is great for this, too, especially when your child plays with dolls and stuffed animals. Puppets are a great way to find out what your kids are thinking and to get them to talk. My kids responded very well and spoke freely when I animated the puppet. Show love and compassion for everyone and everything (animals, insects, plants) on a regular basis and they will learn to show it, and feel it, too.
Pick-up some books that teach acceptance and empathy like The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss, It’s Okay to Be Different by Todd Parr and Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman. As you know, it’s often easier to influence children through stories and books than by preaching to them!
Have children volunteer and help out in their community. Walking a dog at a local shelter, helping others at the food bank or simply assisting a neighbour in need, all give kids an appreciation for the lives of others while teaching them to focus on someone other than themselves. It will allow them to connect with others, while practising compassion and kindness outside of the home.
Empathy can be taught. It’s made up of habits that can be learned, developed and practiced in everyday life. Be a role model for your children as much as possible and teach them that empathy will help them to better connect with their peers and live a happier life.