Your three year-old may have a tendency to say things like, “I hate my teacher! I never want to go to school again”, without even realizing that the teacher is within earshot. Empathy is a critical social skill that can both be developed naturally and nurtured within a child.
Scientists allege that EQ (emotional intelligence) is equally, if not more important, than IQ (intelligence quotient) in determining success in life.The ability to deal with one’s own and other’s emotions also accounts for emotional intelligence. Some researchers have gone so far as to claim that emotional intelligence plays a major role in not only the satisfaction with your social and personal life, but also the aspects of your academic and career life.
The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child states, “If we really want to build a strong platform for healthy development and effective learning in the early childhood years … then we must pay as much attention to children‘s emotional wellbeing and social capacities as we do to their cognitive abilities and academic skills”. Also, a study conducted by researchers from the Curtin University of Technology (based on the Canadian-developed “Roots of Empathy” program) claims that “pro-social behavior of the children in the Roots of Empathy classes increased while bullying and aggression decreased.”
How do we engrain this vital trait in our little ones? Here are some science-backed tips on how it can be done.
1) Get them a Pet
According to a statement from the Washington Post, a variety of research supports the idea of empathy scores increasing due to an attachment to a pet. A pet can teach a child how to love and care for sensitive creatures who are dependent on other social beings. Having a pet teaches a child to be self-less, thereby increasing the ability to feel for others. To master empathy, a child also needs to be able to read and recognize non-verbal cues which are the only ways pets communicate to us.
2) Encourage them to Read Literary Fiction
While commercial or genre-based fiction have a clear plot and a story that appeals to a wide audience, literary fiction focuses on each individual character, their development in the story, and their reactions to what happens in the story. According to a study by researchers at The New School in New York, literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are feeling. Kidd, a researcher, says: “Often those characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations”. The reader is left to predict the inner monologues of characters often throughout the book.
This carries over to the real world and enables readers to understand a person’s psyche and the feelings of those who are different from us.
3) Praise Empathetic Behavior
Every time your kid expresses kindness and generosity towards another person, reward the act. They may be giving a sufferer a shoulder, offering advice or help with an essay, or simply sharing their favorite stationary item. Let them know that you thought the gesture was highly courteous. Positive reinforcement will work best in this situation and increase the likelihood that the behavior will repeat. Don’t let the “you can have mine if you like” and simple acts of kindness go unrewarded.
4) Be the Empathetic Role Model
One of the best ways to teach your children to be empathetic and socially competent is by modeling the behavior yourself. Psychologists have long known the fact that children learn by imitating adults. Listen to what your child has to say, show them how to be selfless, and pay careful attention to their emotional needs. When your children notice how you react to their emotional outbursts, they will internalize the behavior and make an effort to respond to others in the same manner.
5) Be Physically Affectionate
Given enough hugs, cuddles, and kisses, a child can learn how to be the perfect person. This may sound far-fetched, but it really isn’t. Numerous studies have shown how physical affection improves our moods, reduces depression and anxiety, and increases friendship and trust. With these incredibly positive feelings bouncing around in our system, we tend to be more receptive to another’s emotions rather than focusing on ourselves.
6) Give them a Set of Responsibilities
Teaching your child “responsibility” is not something you do only to groom them into becoming well-rounded adults. Doing chores and learning responsibility also teaches children to care for others and think about “needs” other than their own.
7) Teach them Basic Rules of Politeness
Telling your child to say “please” before they ask someone to pass a dish on the table is just as good as telling your child to be polite to others — or even better because you are being specific. Words such as “Thank you”, “I’m sorry”, “Please”, and “It’s okay” should be an automatic response. Teach them to be patient and wait for others before taking their turn. Let them know when they are being impolite and instruct them how to respond to the situation correctly after apologizing. Sometimes, it’s the subtleties that make all of the difference.
8) Teach Them to Think Before they Respond
One of the important life lessons you can teach your child is to think before they respond. This is also crucial to social competence and responding with empathy. Even if their first thought is not in line with the best or “most empathetic” response, they will give their words and actions a second thought before making them known. This increases the likelihood that the response will be considerate one.
Featured photo credit: Empathetic Kid via flickr.com