Photo Credit: Xavier Mouton Photography
Earlier this summer, as COVID-19 continued to rage across the country, and it became apparent that there would be few—if any—summer camps available, limited time for our children to enjoy social interaction with their friends, and very little opportunity to travel away from our four walls, my girls and I begin cobbling together a mix of things we wanted to learn, read, and do this summer.
Four weeks in, and we’ve already taken on a week of baking camp (I did not miss my calling as a French pastry chef), we planted native wildflowers in our yard to attract butterflies, we kicked off a summer reading club with friends, and— much to my daughter’s initial disinterest, we enrolled in a week of online etiquette camp—an hour per day to learn the basics of table manners, compliments, and confidence building.
A few days back, as my daughter was logged on to Zoom for that camp, listening to the instructor teach the basics on how to make proper introductions, it became clear that something important had clicked in Sophia.
“OK, children, listen up. When you’re getting ready to introduce people to one another, you should always introduce the more important person to the less important person”, the instructor said.
Sophia looked at me, questioning and curious. That explanation did not sit well with her.
As I sat next to her, I nodded softly to Sophia, motioning to that it was OK to ask the instructor for clarification.
Sophia put her arm up slowly so the instructor would pause in conversation. “Yes, Sophia?”
“But aren’t all people important?”
It’s hard to know when life lessons will show themselves, but that was undoubtedly one of them. And not just for Sophia, who learned the importance of questioning an authority when something doesn’t feel right. It was an equally important reminder for me of just how much we can learn about empathy from the simple curiosities of a child.
Her desire to question the instructor in that moment was one grounded in experience. “Don’t all people matter, and shouldn’t we make all people feel very important, even if they don’t have a title?” she said to me after class.
Empathy is a complex concept for a kid, but we talk about it as an ability to see the world through another’s eyes. The importance of empathy has long been understood among educators, parents, and physicians, but during this time of COVID, it is an ever-important concept for kids to embrace.
When our children can learn to see situations from another’s perspective (how would it feel to be considered less important, for instance), we create opportunities for kindness to emerge. And, in this especially challenging time, how can we be anything but kind?
If you’re looking for ways to build empathy in your children this summer, consider ways to practice and model empathy in your own actions first. Here are a few tips to consider:
1. Speak from Experience vs. Giving Advice. Creating relatable moments for children can really help build their empathy muscle and build connections between human experiences. My dear friend and mom of three, Frederique Irwin, was the first to teach me about the Gestalt Language Protocol, in which individuals speak from experience rather than giving advice. For instance, saying, “Here’s what worked for me…” or “I remember experiencing something similar when I was your age…” is far more effective and empathic than saying “Here’s what you should do…” or “Here’s what I would do…”
2. Listen vs. Analyze. Our kids don’t always come to us expecting the answers, or even to understand everything they’re feeling. Sometimes, they just want to be heard. The more we can give them the space to talk without being evaluated or analyzed, the better they’ll be at listening and learning from others, too. The next time your child is working through an emotion that feel complicated, rather than jumping to a statement like “You’re taking this too seriously…,” just listen, and avoid the urge to have “the right answer.”
3. Give Your Kids Your Full Attention. When our children were very young, a friend said to me, “take every chance you can to see life from their perspective.” At the time, he was talking about literally getting down on the ground with my baby to look up at life, but I’ve kept that sentiment close as my children have grown. In this time of COVID, when work and family have collided on so many levels, and it is increasingly hard to limit multitasking, I have to regularly remind myself of this lesson from C.S Lewis: that my “children are not a distraction from more important things, but that they are the most important thing.” Multitasking, while a great skill, is not appropriate when working empathically. Instead, practice active listening. Tune into what your child is saying without interruption. Pay careful attention to their body language and facial expressions and periodically repeating back to them what you think they’re trying to say, to make sure you understand them accurately. The real test of active listening: next time you’re in conversation with your kid, focus in on the color of their eyes. Tune in to them fully, to help see the world through those eyes, and you’ll likely find that you will hear them better than you have in the past.
4. Look for and Embrace Commonalities. Approach each day with your kids knowing that you have at least one thing in common with every single person with whom you interact—on daily walks, in trips to the grocery store, and with people delivering packages to your door. When interacting with people who, at first glance, seem to be different from you, seek out sources of commonality and shared experience, and model this in front of your children. Actively embracing Shared Identity can do a lot to promote empathy.
5. Share in Other People’s Joy. Empathy is not just about commiserating; it can also be experienced in response to positive emotions such as happiness and pride. If you hear someone else sharing good news or celebrating a special moment, step away from whatever you’re doing, and express your wholehearted enthusiasm for their good news. Moments like this take mere seconds, but they are immensely important for modeling empathy with your children.
The short summary to all of this is: Life is hard, and there will always be more to teach our kids. Start every day from a place of compassion, and an understanding that it’s OK to not know all the answers. And, in taking the time to practice and model empathy in our own lives, our kids will catch on, too.