Politicians making fun of an 82-year-old man who was attacked with a hammer. Online commenters calling anti-vaxxers who died of covid-19 “stupid.” Teachers refusing to address transgender students by their chosen names.
At a time like this, it can seem to parents more urgent to promote empathy — but also more difficult. “It’s hard to have a shared morality when you don’t have a shared reality,” said Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist and senior lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Weissbourd is also director of the Making Caring Common Project, which focuses on helping parents, schools and communities raise children who care about others and the common good.
“The challenge for parents is to cultivate kids’ capacity for empathy for people who are different from them or not in their immediate circle,” Weissbourd said. “So, different in gender, different race, different class, different sexual orientation. Different in political orientation and different religious orientation.”
That doesn’t mean parents should encourage children to agree with people who don’t share their views, he noted. “They may fiercely disagree, but it is a matter of listening and trying to take other people’s perspective and valuing other people as human beings.”
Most researchers concur that there are three dimensions of empathy, according to Jamil Zaki, a Stanford University neuroscientist. “One is emotional, vicariously sharing what other people around us view. The other is cognitive, which is trying to understand what other people feel and why. And the third is compassion or empathic concern,” said Zaki, author of “The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World.”
A truly empathetic person must have all three, Weissbourd said. After all, “con men and torturers and politicians and salespeople can take other people’s perspective.” That’s why the third aspect of empathy, which he calls the moral or ethical aspect, is so essential.
So how do parents encourage their children to be proficient in all three dimensions? “I think learning empathy is like playing an instrument or learning a sport. It’s a lot about practice,” Weissbourd said.
Talk about feelings — theirs and others
One of the things parents can practice with kids is talking about and labeling emotions. This helps them recognize emotions in themselves and in others, which is probably an essential step for empathy.
It’s important that parents acknowledge and accept their child’s emotions, according to Tracy Spinrad, a professor and researcher in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University.
In fact, parenting style is key to raising empathetic kids. There is evidence “that warmth and support in parenting is predictive of children’s empathy and sympathy responses,” Spinrad said.
That could be because warm and supportive parents are more likely to raise emotionally regulated children, and there is some evidence showing that “children that are better regulated tend to be children that display more empathy and helping behavior.”
Research in the development of empathy also supports the practice of talking to children about their behavior and how it affects others and how amends might be made, rather than punishing them or forcing them into offering an apology. “We want to make sure that children’s emotional responses are coming from something internal and not something external,” she said.
Teaching kids how to understand what other people feel
Weissbourd says that the tougher work these days, especially with older children, involves understanding what other people feel and feeling compassion or empathy. “Most kids are growing up in quite politically homogeneous communities,” he said, “and there isn’t a lot of effort in schools typically — or in homes — to encourage kids to take the perspective of those who don’t share their political views.”
Practicing “cognitive empathy” — or understanding another person’s mind or what they feel — involves “having conversations that alert kids to how other people may feel in the family and outside the family in different situations,” Weissbourd said. “It’s talking about the news and having conversations with your kids about what people are experiencing in this country and other countries that might be different from them. It’s helping out neighbors and understanding neighbors who may be different in some way. It’s noticing and talking about the contributions that different people are making to kids’ lives,” including people who might not be on their radar, such as the school secretary, custodian or bus driver.
Weissbourd calls this expanding kids’ “circle of concern,” and through this approach, “we’ve increased the number and diversity of people that kids have empathy for.” A study of the effects of Facing History and Ourselves, an educational program that uses lessons about racism and genocide to encourage social-emotional learning, found that middle school students who participated in the program “reported higher levels of empathy, prosocial behavior, and stronger participatory citizenship beliefs” than a control group.
Zaki also says that older children benefit from a different approach to empathy: one that is peer-based. His Empathy Lab conducted an experiment that showed that seventh-graders who believed that empathy was popular among their classmates were more likely to engage in empathetic behavior. Parents can help make empathy contagious by asking tweens and teens to point out examples of empathy they’ve seen among their peers and praising actions they’ve taken on their own.
“It’s critical that if we want our kids to be empathic, that we also recognize and celebrate when they do it, when they do something kind, and we ask them about the kind of things that they do, just as much as we ask them how much they’re learning in math, science, and in reading and writing,” Zaki said. There’s data showing that parents don’t do this enough: In a national survey conducted by Making Caring Common in 2014, about 80 percent of the middle and high school students polled report that their parents were more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others.
Challenges to empathy
But just as important as building empathy, according to Weissbourd, is “removing the barriers” by addressing stereotypes and biases with kids, including your own. He shared a story with his children about an acquaintance who offered advice about caring for a cut on his hand. He asked whether she was a nurse. No, she replied. She was a surgeon.
Another difficult aspect of empathy, Weissbourd said, “involves having empathy for people or caring for people despite their mistakes or their flaws.” He calls this “hard” caring. To encourage it, parents need to give their children permission to hold conflicting feelings about others, such as, say, an uncle the family disagrees with politically. Parents can say: “He can be generous and he can be a lot of fun to be with. And he’s been kind to you your whole life. You can have all these feelings for him. You don’t have to land in one place.”
Parents need to watch their own behavior, too, Zaki said. “Oftentimes, I want my kids to be empathic, but then I get upset about an election result or something that I hear in the news. And if I act in a way that’s divisive, if I act in a way that’s angry, well, I have to realize that my suggestion to my kids to be empathic is going to fall flat.”
Finally, parents also need to keep in mind that the least kind, most extreme, most toxic voices are often those that get amplified in today’s society, Zaki said. “And I think that older kids feel a lot of pressure to fit in with whatever culture is around them. So if we give them a skewed perspective that people are really cruel, they’ll feel like maybe kindness and empathy are for dorks, and they won’t want to express those.”
The challenge for parents is to remind kids that, “despite what you read in the news, the people around you really want to be friends,” Zaki said. “They want to be connected. They want to be kind. And in many cases, they are being all of those things.”