There has been a lot written about empathy lately. Perhaps because we see so little of it generally and instead see an overwhelming amount of evidence that it is severely lacking in our nation and daily life. Research suggests that empathy is on the decline for adults and for children and this can have implications far and wide for individuals and our society.
One of the researchers who has done some notable work in the area, Dr. Michele Borba, an educational psychologist and expert in parenting and character development, has collected her observations in a book entitled UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in our All-About-Me World.
Borba believes that empathy habits can be taught at any age and they are essential to help our children thrive in an ever-changing and challenging world. She studied hundreds of biographies of Nobel Peace Prize winners and others who had been honored for their courage and altruism. What she discovered was that most of them had learned to be empathetic from a parent or teacher.
UnSelfie identifies nine habits that highly empathetic individuals use and that can give children (and adults) an advantage. And she offers simple, practical, and proven ways to nurture these skills in children. The list is roughly organized into three general areas – developing empathy, practicing empathy, and living empathy - and these habits can be cultivated and nurtured in children of all ages.
Empathy Habit 1: Emotional Literacy
Emotional literacy is the basic foundation to develop skills that are empathetic. It relies on teaching children to recognize and understand the feelings and needs of others by observing not just speech but also body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. These skills are best cultivated by face-to-face conversation.
It is important to also develop a rich vocabulary to discuss emotions. Scientific evidence suggests that parents generally discuss, explain, and encourage daughters to share feelings far more than they do for their sons. There are some great resources available to enhance your efforts in this area. Check out this feelings wheel to increase your own emotional vocabulary and encourage the same in your children.
Empathy Habit 2: Moral Identity
Strong moral identity can and should be displayed in what you say and do as a parent. This helps children develop ethical codes and caring mindsets that will guide their integrity and activate their ability to feel empathy toward and help others. Repetition helps, too. As a parent, you are your child’s first teacher and role model. Explaining the “why” behind your beliefs and how those beliefs are applied to everyday life is a powerful teaching tool.
Empathy Habit 3: Perspective Taking
Look for occasions to draw attention to people’s feelings and ask your child to stretch to understand that person’s perspective. There are many opportunities that we run across within and outside our own homes. Books are an enormous help here and can provide wonderful opportunities to glimpse into the lives and experiences of others from diverse backgrounds, cultures, ages, abilities, and more.
Empathy Habit 4: Moral Imagination
Another empathetic trait worth nurturing is the use of moral imagination. This concept describes the ability to generate useful ideas in order to be our best selves. It also involves the ability to form ideas about what is good and right and to put those ideas into action for the service of others. Achieving success here requires sensitivity to the people and the natural world around us.
Parents can help children develop and exercise their moral imagination by reading books or watching movies that allow them to journey into the world of another. Borba has developed a list of 50 Books for Kids and Teens that Teach Empathy that can get you started. And they are conveniently grouped by age. Parents, be sure to read along with your children in order to strengthen your own moral imagination. It is actually a lifelong pursuit!
Empathy Habit 5: Self-Regulation
A large part of developing empathy is respecting and being sensitive to feelings – and that includes our own. We know that feelings can be deep and intense and that sometimes they also must be self-regulated. One simple tip for the young and old is to learn “belly breathing” and to use it as a means to calm down when the situation becomes heated. To do so inhale deeply through your nose, gently hold it, and then let the air out slowly through your lips. If you are sitting in a chair or lying flat on the floor you can feel this type of breathing in your belly. This type of exercise helps to reduce personal distress and keep the door for empathy open.
Empathy Habit 6: Practicing Kindness
Exercising kindness is a prosocial behavior that increases children’s concern about the welfare and feelings of others. Parents can encourage children of all ages to perform big and small acts of kindness – think holding a door, picking up something that is dropped, lending a helping hand, asking how someone is feeling, or even just extending a smile (that is a sunnah!). And when they do, it is important to positively reinforce that behavior. The more kids witness or experience what it feels like to be a “kindness giver” they are more likely to look for these opportunities on their own.
Empathy Habit 7: Collaboration
Collaboration in simple terms is just teamwork. Kids need to know how to work with others to achieve shared goals. And these are the perfect kinds of activities to inculcate within the family. This can be tackling housework or work in the yard together. Also, keep your eyes and ears open to participate in activities and events with individuals of different races, cultures, ages, genders, abilities, and beliefs. It is important to walk the talk here. When you display an openness to and value diversity, your kids are likely to model and respect these differences, too.
Empathy Habit 8: Moral Courage
Living empathy is about promoting moral courage or standing up for what is right, fair, and just. And it means taking this assertive action even when there is a likelihood that there will be adverse consequences. Borda suggests sharing stories about people who changed the world. Three well-known examples from the book were: Pee Wee Reese, a white player who stood up for his Black teammate Jackie Robinson; Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of nonviolent civil disobedience who was very shy as a young boy; and Rosa Parks, an African American civil rights activist who refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. There are many, many more and Muslim parents should be sure to relay stories of our prophets and sahabah for excellent models of moral courage displayed by both men and women.
Empathy Habit 9: Altruistic Leadership Abilities
Altruism generally refers to behavior that benefits another individual without benefit or even at a cost to oneself. An altruistic leader then is someone who guides others with the ultimate goal of improving their wellness. Cultivating altruistic traits can start early. We have seen youth throughout history make a difference in the world as social changemakers. Maybe the next is living right in your own home!
Unselfie provides a warning about the challenges our children face in an ever-changing world and practical steps that can be taken to help them develop, practice, and live empathically. Parents play a vital role in finding opportunities to cultivate and reinforce these skills. InshaAllah, God willing, there is much to be gained for our children (and for you, too!) and much benefit to be had from your efforts for us all.