As the story goes, a man and his four children boarded a subway car. The unruly kids ran up and down the aisle, shouting, throwing things, and disturbing everyone while the man sat and stared off into space. The other passengers became indignant. Still the man sat, oblivious to the disruption. With tension mounting, a woman finally asked him to get his kids under control. The father apologized. “We’ve just come from the hospital,” he explained. “My wife died an hour ago, and I don’t know what to do.”
Did you, like the passengers, have a change of heart when you learned the whole story? You’ve engaged empathy, a key ingredient to success.
Empathy is being aware of and sensitive to someone else’s thoughts and feelings. It softens our hearts, causing us to see people differently, explained Paul Parkin, PhD and adjunct professor at the Utah Valley University. With empathy “we rewrite the narratives that we tell ourselves about others in the kindest ways possible,” he said.
Every human being needs such kindness and grace. Yet empathy doesn’t automatically happen; it’s a skill that must be modeled and taught. Homeschooling allows you to do just that. Homeschooling affords you the opportunity to purposefully incorporate empathy skills into your lessons rather than hoping your child will catch on by example.
Doing this brings more benefits than you might imagine, according to educational psychologist Michele Borba. “It turns out that kids schooled in feelings are smarter, nicer, happier, and more resilient than children who are less literate in their Emotion ABCs,” Borba wrote in her book UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.
“Scientists have shown that kids who are able to read feelings from nonverbal cues are better adjusted emotionally, more popular, more outgoing, and more sensitive in general,” Borba said. “Emotionally attuned kids are also physically healthier and score higher academically than kids who aren’t coached to consider the feelings and needs of others.”
Here are five practical ways to teach your child how to be empathetic.
1. Make feelings part of your conversation
Kids need to be able to recognize their own feelings before they can identify how other people feel. Use picture books as a springboard. “She’s smiling. She must be happy.” “This boy is frowning. What would you do to make him feel better?” Watch a movie while it’s muted and see what body language your child can pick up on. “Her clenched fists show she’s angry.” “That character must be interested in the conversation; see how he’s leaning forward?”
Remember, boys need this as much as girls, if not more so. Studies show parents talk about feelings much less with sons than with daughters. Tip: Chatting about emotions can be less awkward if you’re engaged in an activity together.
Face-to-face interaction increases empathy, but excessive screen time can cripple it. Parents need to plan regular family times without digital devices. Dinner is great for this. Everyone, including adults, should leave their cell phones, tablets, etc. in another room during the meal to alleviate distractions and encourage conversation. Eating together while unplugged “can positively affect kids’ social and emotional development,” Borba noted. My family also unplugs for Sunday teatime, followed by a few rousing games of UNO that have resulted in hilarious memories (like the phrase “Come to the draw side” spoken in a Darth Vader voice).
3. Boost your child’s identity
People act from a foundation of how they see themselves, their self-identity. “Your behaviors are usually a reflection of your identity,” said James Clear, author of Atomic Habits. “What you do is an indication of the type of person you believe that you are. …For example, people who identified as ‘being a voter’ were more likely to vote than those who simply claimed ‘voting’ was an action they wanted to perform.”
This goes for children, too. In an experiment with three- to six-year-olds, psychologist Adam Grant found children more willing to help when they were asked to “be a helper” rather than “to help.” Nouns trump verbs in such cases. So tweak your words to boost your child’s identity. And praise your children’s character instead of their behavior. Use words like helper, leader, encourager, generous, thoughtful, kind, considerate, caring, compassionate. As positive character traits become part of their identity, they’ll act accordingly because it’s who they are.
4. Handle your child’s anger
When a provocation erupts, don’t begin by asking, “How do you think your actions/words made the other person feel?” That puts your child on the defense, ready to fight you and defend her position, even when she knows she’s wrong. Instead begin with “You must have felt very upset” or “How do you feel?” says Borba. This tactic acknowledges her feelings, makes her feel heard, and diffuses the tension. Then it’s easier to address the other person’s feelings and discuss ways to right the wrong.
5. Speak each other’s language
People have different empathy languages, Parkin points out. When you reach out to your child, she’ll be more receptive if you speak her language. For example, some people think no one else can know exactly what they’re going through. “[They] need to hear, ‘I have no idea what that’s like. Please help me understand,’” Parkin said. Others want someone to come alongside them, someone who has experienced a similar situation and can offer encouragement or solutions.
Incorporate these ideas into your daily family life, purposefully moving from a “me” mentality to a “we” outlook. Doing so will soften your children’s hearts and help them embrace empathy as part of their self-identity.