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Teaching Empathy to Our Children

When I was in Kindergarten, I learned my first real lesson about kindness. Or, at least, one that I still remember with sadness today. It is one of several stories that I recount when I’m asked why I am so adamant about teaching empathy to my children. Our Kindergarten was probably like the one you remember. It was a warm, fuzzy environment, where we sang songs and practiced our letter formations. My favorite letter book was “O”, because it had a funny purple octopus on the front. When we were let out for recess, though, things were not so warm and fuzzy. Our school was a K-6 school, and the culture of the playground was transmitted from the older grades on down. The adults rarely intervened – their philosophy was “kids are kids” and as long as no one was bleeding, all was ok. I remember the old rusty playground equipment, and a slide in particular, that had a rusty butt print at the top. No, it wasn’t really a butt print, but it vaguely looked like one, so we all declared that it was. At some point in the school year, some of the kids started a rumor that the butt print had been created by Claire, a slightly overweight and very shy little girl in our class. We were not nice to Claire. We made up songs, we pointed and laughed, we teased her constantly. She eventually left school – whether it was because of our teasing or because she happened to move away, I don’t know, but it is cemented in my mind that we made her life so miserable that she had to change schools.

In the end, everyone got hurt… I was the teaser, not the teasee, yet even I look back on this and cringe with guilty feelings. Was it preventable? Maybe not entirely, but I do think that the environment where I was raised contributed to the choices that we, as Kindergarteners, made. It was this Lord of the Flies mentality – the idea that playground culture should be transmitted from older kids to younger kids,without any intervention whatsoever from adults. It was a combination of our lack of social skills and a lack of informed direction on how to best develop those skills.

I hope that, by teaching my children empathy, I help them to avoid feeling these guilty feboys_huggingelings that I have held on to for three decades. My children are very aware that there is no place in our house for mean behavior, making fun of people, or disrespecting other people’s property. I’m not saying that they don’t do it on occasion, but they certainly don’t do it to the extent we did it to poor Claire. Here are a few ideas that we use at our house to teach empathy:

1. Checking In

In the heat of battle, kids always want you to pick a side. They run to you with their story of injustice, hoping that you will right the wrong by imposing a harsh consequence on a sibling. Our first step towards conflict resolution is to have the child who feels wronged check in with the child who has done the wronging. The injured party gets to say what they’re so upset about and why they are upset (“You took my toy and I was in the middle of playing with it and that made me sad”). The other party then apologizes and asks “What do I need to do to make you feel better?” to which the first party usually responds “I need a hug.” Most of the time, this is enough to repair their relationship and they happily start playing together again. You’re probably thinking “There is no way that will work in my house”. And you’re right. It won’t work at first. It only worked for our children after months of coaching from us and their teachers (we learned this approach from the Missoula Community School, where they use it as part of their curriculum). But, now they really get it. And they can quickly put themselves in someone else’s shoes and say “yeah, I guess I did hurt their feelings – I should probably fix that.”

2. Saying sorry doesn’t mean you did it on purpose!

There is a thinking error that every kid seems to develop without careful grown up intervention. Kids almost alway say they’re sorry when they are forced to by grown ups. This is usually when they’ve done something that they were not supposed to do. Sorry, though, is something that we are supposed to say to make someone else feel better – not to do penance for our bad behavior. Saying sorry is supposed to be about the other person, but I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve heard a kid say, “Yeah, but I shouldn’t have to say sorry because I didn’t do it on purpose!” Well, is that how we work as grown ups? Is that how we want our children to grow up acting? Image if someone accidentally knocked you over on the street and did not feel that it was necessary to apologize because it wasn’t done on purpose. That is essentially what we are telling our children is ok by not asking them to apologize when they hurt someone by accident. Saying sorry is not about being bad – it’s about being a good friend, sibling, and community member. When we apologize, we show other people that we care about them.

3. Our favorite part – our saddest part

This is a Graham family dinnertime tradition. As our kids grow older, I have to admit that we don’t have as many family dinners as we used to. One of us always seems to be driving a group of kids to activities while the other is sitting down with whomever is left at home. Sometimes, the kids eat at the counter and I stand across from them scarfing down whatever I can in the five minutes before we have to leave for our next activity. That is just life with six busy children. But, when we do get the chance to eat together, we have a tradition that I think helps our children to develop empathy. We go around the table and each person gets to talk about their favorite part of the day and their saddest part of the day. I think that most families just talk about the good parts of the day, but talking about what didn’t go so well has its advantages. First, it gives the kid who had the experience the opportunity to vent and reflect. Second, it gives the other kids a window into a sibling’s life. It helps our children to understand and value each other as individuals, each with his or her own struggles and achievements.

4. Holding the door

This is an easy one, but one that I think just creates this simple, internal awareness of the outside world. I ask my kids to hold the door for strangers, and I also model this behavior any chance I get. The reason is simple – I grew up in a suburb of New York City where holding the door for someone was unheard of (things may have changed since then, so don’t get mad at me New Yorkers). When I moved to Montana, this was one of the first things that I noticed: everyone held the door. It created an instant change in me – in the way I viewed the people around me, and in my willingness to show kindness to others. My sense of community was shaped by this one very small act of kindness that I’m pretty sure people in Missoula just grew up with. Holding the door for another person forces you to stop and think about how your actions can positively affect the people around you. I think it is a great exercise for kids and adults, and an easy way for a parent to teach empathy to a child.

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