Are your kids kind?
Survival of the kindest: teaching your children to be empathetic gives them the edge.
Science is increasingly showing that charity, kindness, respect and compassion are perhaps more important to people’s happiness than selfish individualism. We are moving away from the notion that life is survival of the fittest, and research is showing that human goodness is as innate as our less likeable qualities.

Gaily Sheehy, in an article in USA Today, writes “’Survival of the Kindest’ is not just a theory. It is becoming a revolutionary cultural movement. There are many signs that caring is gaining currency.”

Without empathy we become isolated. With it, we learn to understand others, to communicate meaningfully with them, to learn from them and to work with them to ends that serve more than just the single individual.

Teaching your children compassion is not just a nice thing to do in general, it’s likely to make their lives easier too. Here are some of the ways to show your children how to care.

1. Respond to their feelings. Don’t quash your children’s expression of emotion, but help them to name them, or simply acknowledge them. The point is not to make your child “feel better” when things have gone wrong, but to help them notice the feeling behind the reaction. Research indicated that children are more likely to show empathic concern for others if they have parents who help them cope with negative emotions in a sympathetic, problem-solving way. A parent must also respond to the good feelings, saying things like “That must have made you feel proud”, or “It sounds like you’re really enjoying that spaghetti.”

2. Meet their needs. Psychologist Gwen Dewar, author, and founder of Parenting Science, says the first step in teaching children develop empathy is to meet their needs.
When they have secure attachment relationships – and they can count on their caregivers for emotional and physical support – they are more likely to show sympathy and offer help to other kids in distress.

3. Show them your own empathy. Your children must see you demonstrate kindness. This is called modelling. If you see someone being grumpy you could wonder aloud to your children what might be driving them. If the woman at the check-out counter is rude, you could say to your children later “Gee, she seems grumpy. She must be having a bad day.” This teaches them that they needn’t respond with anger, nor feel that they are to blame when other people behave badly.

4. Share stories. Stories from books or movies are opportunities for children to change perspective – in other words, to imagine the lives and experiences of others. In a story you could wonder how an event makes a character feel or pre-empt what a character might do in a situation. This gives your child a chance to put themselves in someone else’s shoes for a moment.

5. Role playing. When there’s a sibling fight, for instance, you could ask your children to swop roles and imagine how it feels to be their brother or sister. This might even end up in laughter.

6. Don’t reward or punish for empathy. Children are spontaneously helpful and sympathetic, and are less likely to be so if they are given material rewards because of it, experiments show. Children are more likely to develop an internal sense of right and wrong if they are raised with discipline that emphasises rational explanations and moral consequences, not arbitrary rules and heavy-handed punishments.

7. Touchy-feeling happiness. Oxytocin is a hormone released when people experience pleasant touching, like hugs, or when people have pleasant social interactions. One experiment indicates that higher levels of oxytocin can help people better decode emotional meanings of facial expression. To keep your children well-supplied with their own naturally produced oxytocin, show them your love, cuddle them, touch them gently and often on their shoulder, head or arm when you are speaking to them.

You’re not just doing your relationship a favour. You’re making the world a nicer place.

Have you ever seen your child demonstrating empathy?

Read Parent24’s Comments Policy publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Everything from parties to pre-schools in your area.