By Frank Schofield
Superintendent, Logan City School District
ONE OF MY favorite superheroes will always be Superman (recent movies notwithstanding). His physical abilities and intelligence are impressive, but his most defining trait is the kind and respectful way he treats others. Superman is an example of the reality that how we treat others is just as important, if not more so, than what we know and are otherwise able to do. The opposite of this is exemplified in the character of Lex Luthor, who was a genius, but his treatment of others makes him a villain.
One of the key attributes that motivates us to treat others as Superman would, instead of Lex Luthor, is empathy. This includes valuing other perspectives and people, and treating them with compassion. Empathy is a foundation for acting ethically, building healthy relationships of many kinds, and developing professional success. It’s also key to preventing bullying and many other forms of cruelty.
In a society that appears to be increasingly combative, empathy is a skill that can promote effective relationships and rebuild those relationships when they are damaged. Consequently, helping children develop empathy is key to their individual emotional well-being and their ability to successfully navigate healthy relationships in the future.
The Making Caring Common project, an initiative of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, lists several ideas parents can use to help their children develop empathy:
Empathize with your child and model empathy for others
Children learn empathy both from watching us and from experiencing our empathy for them. When we empathize with our children, they develop trusting, secure attachments with us.
Empathizing with our children takes many forms, including tuning in to their physical and emotional needs, understanding and respecting their individual personalities, taking a genuine interest in their lives, and guiding them toward activities that reflect an understanding of the kind of people they are and the things they enjoy.
Children also learn empathy by watching those we notice and appreciate. They’ll notice if we treat a server in a restaurant or a mail carrier as if they’re invisible. On the positive side, they’ll notice if we welcome a new family into their school or express concern about another child in their class who is experiencing a challenge.
Make caring for others a priority and set high ethical expectations
If children are to value others’ perspectives and show compassion for them, it’s very important that they hear from their parents that caring about others is a top priority and that it is just as important as their own happiness.
Provide opportunities for children to practice empathy
Children are born with the capacity for empathy, but it needs to be nurtured throughout their lives. Regularly considering other people’s perspectives and circumstances helps make empathy a natural reflex and, through trial and error, helps children get better at tuning into others’ feelings and perspectives.
Help children develop self-control and manage feelings effectively
Often when children don’t express empathy it’s not because they don’t have it. It’s because some feeling or image is blocking their empathy. The ability to care for others could be overwhelmed by anger, shame, envy, or other negative feelings.
Helping children manage these negative feelings, as well as stereotypes and prejudices about others, is often what “releases” their empathy.
As children and caregivers work on these behaviors together, children are more likely to develop empathy. As they do so, they will enjoy the positive relationships that empathy can promote and create positive environments in their community.