How to Tell if You’re Raising an Empathetic Child
We can all agree that being able to vicariously experience someone else’s feelings is an admirable quality. It would be hard to argue that having empathy is a bad thing. Having well developed empathy is necessary in order to have a relationship, a family, children; you know, a life. The reason is because empathy helps you put yourself in someone else’s shoes. The more empathy you have the better understanding you have of what someone else is going through.
Empathy is developed, like most things, when you are a young child. It is an attribute that you absorb, or don’t, from your parents and other family members throughout your childhood.
Now, I understand that there are psychopaths, sociopaths, lunatics, etc., but play with me, just for a minute, a game where your child doesn’t end up as any of those nightmares. Understand that I know there are exceptions and that I am speaking in generalities here.
Through research we have learned that the more aggressive you are towards your child, the more aggressive they are in general. We have learned, through peaceful parenting, that the more empathetic and caring you are towards your child, the more empathetic and caring they are in general. Seems pretty logical, right?
Determining your child’s empathy level can get muddy because not every situation requires empathy. When my daughter is crying because she had a scare from almost falling off her chair at the dinner table we have a different conversation than when she actually does fall off her chair. Why? Because they are two different situations. It’s important for children to understand the complexity of their being. They will never understand this if you give them the same cookie cutter response for all the different situations they encounter.
While we can easily see the aggressive behavior of our children decrease when we decrease our aggressive behavior, I find that it is much more difficult to spot empathy. Why? Because, as stated above, not every interaction with your child requires empathy. You do not need to experience the same excitement as your five year old for reading that book you’ve read 40 times this week. Trying to force yourself to would be awful, and good luck getting anywhere with that.
My point here is that you do not get 100% reciprocation from your child when you are trying to teach them behavior. I could easily make the case that you get a rate of 50%, or lower. If you did get a rate of 100%, then parenting would actually be a piece of cake. The fact that it requires large amounts of research, time, and effort is one indicator that the behavioral reciprocation rate is significantly less than 100%. So, if your child exerts empathy half of the appropriate times (since they’re still learning) and not every incident requires empathy, then there might be days where your child only shows empathy once, and you were making dinner when it happened. So how can you tell if you’re raising an empathetic child?
The thing is that your child will show signs of empathy even when they are not dealing directly with another person. Here are a few things that could help you gauge the level of your child’s empathy:
When reading a story.
There are a couple of ways you can pick up on your child’s empathy level while reading with them. You can watch to see if their facial expressions change as the story changes. My daughters eyebrows will furrow when one of the characters is not being very nice. Also, listen to what they have to say about the problems that arise in the story. My son will ask questions “Why would they be so mean?” They may also tell you what you think the character feels based off of the picture. My daughter will point out tears on a character before I even start reading the words on that page. Even if you read the words and they say something like, “Oh yeah, see the hippo has a sad face” that would indicate to me that your child at least recognizes the emotion, which is good.
When they make a gesture.
If your child ever says anything like, “Let’s wait until Daddy gets home because otherwise he would feel left out”, then this is a great sign of high empathy levels! We would all recognize this small gesture as sweet but some of us might overlook the profoundness of what this gesture is telling us about the child. First, they are showing that they can think of the feelings of others. That’s good. Then they are showing us they are able to think of the feelings of someone who isn’t even physically there. That’s fantastic. And finally, they are showing us that they are willing to defer their own gratification for nothing else but the sake of another persons feelings. That’s solid empathy right there!
When they learn their lesson.
Around Christmas time, when Bently was 5 and Loralei was 4, they got snow globes from my dad in the mail. A month into the new year and my son had broken his sisters snow globe by tapping the two of them together because he thought it sounded cool. Well, you know how you can tap to eggs together and one will crack; that happened. She cried for a bit, took some breaths, and then had a deep look of disappointment. Seeing his sister so upset, he cried as well. After the whole thing got resolved he still looked very troubled, even more so than her. When I asked him if he was okay he said, “I’m just really sad that I made my sister so sad by being destructive.” You can be sure that your child is learning what empathy is all about when they learn a lesson purely from understanding how their actions have affected someone else.
When someone they love isn’t feeling well.
One of my favorite ways to see my children exerting empathy is seeing what they do for a member of the family that isn’t feeling well. You take extra good care of your littles when they’re sick. They need extra attention, hugs, snuggles, and popsicles. You run around like crazy doing everything you can, even if it only makes them feel a tiny bit better. This is doing more than reminding them how much you love them and want them to get better, it’s teaching them empathy. When Bently broke his leg my daughter brought all his favorite animals to the couch and made him a comfy resting place. The next time someone is sick, take a second to see what efforts your child makes to help them feel better.
Empathy is a crucial quality to have and it is imperative to maintain. It is easy to let your own empathy gauge slide into the red. If you think that your child is not empathetic enough, then the first step is to examine your own empathy level. Remember we are raising the most empathetic and intelligent generation of children.
When you practice empathy, you have fewer urges to raise your voice. You have the will to remain patient and calm. You have the mind to think before you act. To put it simply, when you are not practicing empathy your child is not learning how to be empathetic. Practicing empathy is not for the faint of heart, but hey, neither is peaceful parenting.