This article was updated on March 11, 2015
As of this writing, the Philippines is still recovering from massive flooding brought about by heavy monsoon rains or habagat, which has left more than 90 people dead and affected 2.4 million families. It has been heartbreaking to see the devastation, yet also inspiring to see the heroic acts, big and small, of those who have come to the aid of the victims. Truly, now, more than ever, is a time for great empathy and social action.
When it comes to our children though, especially the younger ones, empathizing with others may not come as easily as we would hope it to. After all, how does one explain, “Put yourself in his / her shoes,” or “Imagine how that flood victim must feel,” to one’s kids, when they themselves are just starting to have a grasp on the concept of emotions, and are only beginning to name their own emotions and feelings?
Having said that though, we parents would do well to try our best to teach empathy to our children, no matter how young they may be, especially if we consider a study done in recent years by the University of Michigan, which found that “today’s college students are not as empathic as college students of the 1980s and `90s.”
Dr. Michele Borba, an internationally recognized expert and author on children, teens, parenting, bullying and moral development, in her article titled “Empathy Crisis: Why Children are Crueler,” cited several shockingly true examples of grade school children who were found guilty of murder. According to her, “they (the murderers) were all cold-hearted kids without an ounce of empathy — the one virtue that experts say could possibly have stopped them committing from their horrific acts.”
Of course, parents would never intentionally raise their children to be cold-blooded murderers, but we must be aware that our actions, words and examples play a vital role in how our children will empathize with others.
In the words of Dr. Borba:
“Empathy, the first essential virtue of moral intelligence, is the ability to identify with and feel for another person’s concerns. It’s the powerful emotion that halts violent and cruel behavior and urges us to treat others kindly. Because empathy emerges naturally and quite early, our children are born with a huge built-in advantage for their moral growth. But whether our kids will develop this marvelous capacity to feel for others is far from guaranteed. Although children are born with the capacity for empathy, it must be properly nurtured or it will remain dormant.”
Further on in her article, Dr. Borba describes in detail five factors that are “especially lethal in squelching empathy, and point to a crisis in its development,” namely:
1. Emotional unavailability of parents
2. Absence of supportive fathers
3. Barrage of cruel media images
4. Raising boys to mask their feelings
5. Abuse in the cradle
Dr. Borba ends her article with a call to adults to recognize the need to address the empathy crisis and “kid cruelty epidemic” and encourages them to build moral intelligence among children.
In related articles on “Empathy and Kindness,” Dr. Borba shares the following secrets to raising empathic kids, bearing in mind that “the best way kids learn empathy is by witnessing or experiencing it”:
1. Point out other people’s feelings to your child.
Help your child tune in to other people’s feelings by pointing out the facial expressions, posture and mannerisms of people in different emotional states. Some of the ways you can do this is by using pictures in children’s books or posters; describing the look on your child’s favorite TV character; or using a mirror and having your child show you her facial expression for different feelings (e.g. sad, happy, angry).
In relation to the plight of our habagat-affected countrymen, one could also show pictures of the victims as seen on the news (make sure these are age-appropriate) and point out their feelings as well. Talking about feelings openly will help our children (and us parents, too!) deal with feelings more positively and effectively.
2. Practice role-playing to emphasize the feelings of others.
Childhood is usually the best time to play “pretend,” so use this to your advantage. Take turns role-playing with your child and pretending that he or she is in this or that situation. Ask him or her to take the other person’s side and say, “How would you feel if you were in his place?”
Younger children may take to this more easily if you use props like puppets, dolls or toy action figures.
For example (again, in relation to the recent habagat disaster): Pretend that your child’s favorite toy is caught in a flood. If you have one of those play dollhouses, try submerging it in water, and place your child’s dolls and/or action figures on the roof. Have your child “act” out what the toys could possibly be saying and feeling. Join in and voice out your own imagined feelings, too.