Kindness Matters. How to Teach Our Children Empathy
What Child psychologist calls the 'cornerstone for both emotional and moral intelligence'
Doesn’t it feel like now more than ever we need a little kindness in the world?
The news almost seems too much to bear sometimes. Frequently, we are bombarded with horrific stories of children and teens assaulting or even killing other kids in both the U.S. and in other countries.
Bullying, and cyberbullying has reached an all-time high, where bullies often encourage their victims to kill themselves. Depression and anxiety have soared among both children and teens; research states that 1 in 5 youth in the United States meet the criteria for a mental health disorder.
More recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics reported a substantial increase in suicides among teen girls and boys in the U.S. from 1975 to 2015, with the rate among girls hitting a record high.
Every statistic seems more frightening than the next.
Between the years 2007 to 2015, suicide rates doubled among teen girls and increased by more than 30 percent among teen boys. Parents, educators, professionals and even children and teens are left scratching their heads wondering why. Multiple researchers, psychologists and educational experts report there is an empathy crisis among adults and youth. Douglas LaBier, P.D., a business psychologist identified the lack of empathy as the “Empathy Deficit Disorder” and Michele Borba, Ed.D., an educational psychologist calls it the “Selfie Syndrome.”
Empathy is a foundational cornerstone for both emotional and moral intelligence. It is the ability to identify another person’s emotions and imagine what they must be thinking and feeling.
Affective empathy refers to the feelings we experience in response to another person’s emotion, while cognitive empathy is the ability to identify and understand another person’s perspective and emotions. It is what you feel when you step outside of yourself, without abandoning your own perspective, and you can experience that individual’s internal world.
Empathy is the core that makes a society civilized; it is the powerful emotion that stops cruel and/or violent behavior. There is considerable research that supports empathy is hard-wired, children are born with the capacity for empathy; and while empathy will appear early and naturally it has to be nurtured and developed.
In 2010, a research team, led by Sara Konrath of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, found that college students self-reported a decline in empathy since 1980, with a significant drop in the last 10 years. Business leaders also report a serious decline in empathy, which is a critical quality required to be a successful leader. Multiple explanations have been offered, and many factors have been identified through research that is negatively impacting the enhancement and development of empathy in our culture.
We place a huge importance on excelling whether that is academics, sports or in the arts. We all want our children to be successful and excel, but our focus has primarily been on making A’s and developing their college resume. Parents and schools no longer value character traits such as citizenship and kindness. Yet, empathy and emotional intelligence make our children more resilient, better leaders and more employable. As parents, we need to shift our focus from grades only to emphasizing acts of kindness and caring for others.
Changes in our culture, parenting styles, social media and technology have contributed to increased self-absorption; our focus is on “me” instead of “we.”
We live in such a polarizing society. I can’t remember another time where people were so open and about their beliefs. With social media and 24 hour news stations, we can’t escape people’s political agendas and opinions. It’s a lot of heat, but not much light out there. Our kids see this and more importantly they hear this from their parents, their peers and every media platform imaginable. They can’t escape it. I think that adds to a culture of meanness. For us to move forward and our children grow up in a better world than what we have now, we have to start respecting other people’s opinions and talk about issues without it becoming literally a life and death issue.
Our youth are bombarded with troubling events, violent, graphic and cruel images; these images are far more graphic and personal today than ever before.
In addition, our children and teens are constantly exposed to television, movies, music, video games and Internet content that is violent, nasty and cruel. The American Academy of Pediatrics has identified over 1,000 studies that astoundingly show violent entertainment can increase aggressive values and behavior in children. Further, viewing violence may desensitize children and teens to empathy. Researchers Drayman and Thomas found that children who have been exposed to violent programming are less likely to help young children in trouble. Generally, behavior is learned by imitating others’ behavior; a number of studies have found children who watch television programs with prosocial messages show increased cooperation and caring. It is critical we monitor what our children and teens are viewing, we need to protect them from viewing violent images and absolutely talk to them about tragic events. We have to model empathy.
So where do we start? I would say by looking in the mirror.
Michele Borba reports that the diminishing emotional availability of parents contributes to lack of empathy in children and teens. Dr. Gottman at the University of Washington found that parents who are the best at developing empathy in their kids are those parents who are both actively involved in their kids’ lives and emotionally available. Emotional availability means face to face conversations, not interacting through technology devices.
Multiple research studies also support that involved dads, in particular, contribute greatly to raising kids who have empathy. These studies specifically note dads who are actively involved in their child’s care, schoolwork and discipline and personal problems have significantly higher levels of empathy.
Another factor identified by Dr. Borba is teaching our boys and now girls as well to mask their feelings. Historically, parents have encouraged their daughters to share their feelings, whereas boys were told to hide or mask their emotions. Children have to be able to understand their feelings in order to understand others’ feelings; without that ability it is hard to develop empathy.
“Abuse in the Cradle” is yet another factor identified by Dr. Borba. Dr. Perry with Baylor College of Medicine notes that the first three years of a child’s life is critical for building empathy or planting seeds of violence. Thus, how a child is treated in those first three years by their primary care givers is profoundly important. A child who experience abuse, neglect or trauma has a difficult time creating critical attachments.
“The greatest factor that is increasing the empathy crisis: we are allowing cruel behaviors to continue! Cruelty is acceptable!” Like Ellen DeGeneres says “Be Kind!”
Besides the fact that empathy is the cornerstone for both emotional and moral intelligence, why is it so important and how does it benefit my children?
- Empathy is a positive predictor for higher reading and math test scores and especially for critical thinking skills.
- Empathy improves collaboration.
- Empathy is a highly sought after skill in the workforce, it prepares kids for the global world and the job market.
- Empathy is essential for leadership success and excellent performance as claimed by Harvard Business Review.
About the author
Lisa Elliott is a licensed psychologist and clinic manager of Cook Children’s Psychology Clinic, located at 3201 Teasley Lane, Ste. 202, Denton, TX 76210. Cook Children’s Psychology provides care focused on children’s behavior, from ages 3 years through 17. The Behavioral Health Center brings all services together in an expanded space that will provide a talented, dedicated team of caregivers, physicians and professionals with the facilities, resources, tools and programs they need to ensure that these most vulnerable children receive the high quality treatment they need and deserve. Click to learn more. To make an appointment, call our Intake Department at 682-885-3917.