July 1, 2009

Teaching Empathy

I was flying last week. The rows are close together, but the flight was just an hour. There wasn't any room for my legs, however, because of a large suitcase jammed under the seat in front of mine. Very politely, I asked the person sitting in that seat to take the bag and put it under the seat in front of her seat. “I can't do that, she explained helpfully. Then there would be no room for my feet.”

Empathy is the currency of human relationships. Being able to walk in another person's shoes gives us the ability to understand where they're coming from and what they might be feeling. When you think about it, this is the skill behind all kinds of human interactions, including everyday courtesy, safe driving, and successful romantic relationships.

How do we learn this? Are we born with it?

Just like most other behavior, our parents model it for us. But my work with kids who have really difficult behaviors makes me suspect that there's more to it than that. How come some kids are so sensitive to the needs of others, while a sibling not so much—even though they grew up with the same parents? I believe there's a component of brain chemistry involved also.

But whatever the kids are born with, can we make a difference? As it turns out, we can. There are many different aspects to good parenting, but this just hasn't made it into parenting books. As regular readers, and my patients know, I think it's essential.

In one study, children were given a task to do with their mom and a friend. The interaction was observed at 3 and 4 years old. The scientists scored the interaction for conflict vs. cooperation. They found that the most influential factor was the actual words the mother used when talking to the child. Mothers who explained to their 3-year-olds how others might be feeling had, on average, more cooperative 4-year-olds a year later. This is supported by research in which mothers were observed with their children, and what they said was recorded. Children whose mothers often reminded them about what others might be feeling didn't remember the words but did remember the concepts. They showed more understanding of what others were feeling. Maybe these research results aren't surprising. I am impressed, however, by how much these young children can absorb from the little things said my their mothers. Lots of other studies support these findings.

Let's take a step back. Children can, in fact, learn how to appreciate the feelings of others, and this skill could improve their social understanding and relationships. They seem to gain this understanding by listening to the remarks and explanations of their parents. In my mind, this brings up some interesting questions. I didn't find any research on this, but I wonder if they also pick up the negative things we say. That SUV cutting us off on the freeway might deserve an out-loud expression of our analysis of the driver's motives and intelligence, but if our kid is in the back seat, even at a very young age, won't they remember that, too? What about the opinions we voice about our bosses or ex-spouses (or current spouses)? The research is so strong about positive influences that I suspect we may inadvertently provide some examples of insensitivity as well.

If there is a sunny side of the street that we're all supposed to walk on, I haven't found it. Parenting isn't just about only sharing your positive experiences with your children, and hiding the negative ones. How will they learn how to handle interactions that don't go as well as you hope? So a perceptive parent, an empathic parent, will find and use the teachable moments of everyday life, even with the youngest children.

When you see a child crying in the park, ask your child why. If they don't know, help them make up a reasonable explanation. This is an exercise in imaginative story-telling that can be as long or as short as your child likes. But it exercises their empathy muscles, both in trying to imagine why that child is crying, and by the fact that you are interested in why and are interested in why your child thinks the child is crying. As with any behavior, if your children think it's important to you, it will be important to them. It almost doesn't matter what, exactly, your child's scenario is. Maybe the kid fell down. Maybe they had to wait their turn on the slide. Or maybe they couldn't have the pink cookie shaped like a strawberry that probably tasted really really good that their mommy didn't buy for them when they were shopping in the supermarket to buy macaroni and cheese and milk and then get home right away because daddy would be home soon.

Parents translate the world for their children. When we talk to them about the feelings and motivations that make others act as they do, we equip them to manage successfully their lives with others.

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