At the beginning of a new school year one of my children came home particularly upset about his day. After some prodding, I learned that comments had been made about our family and he had been told he couldn’t possibly belong in our family because we don't share the same skin color. A few days later our daughter came home withdrawn and quiet – an unusual demeanor for her. It turned out that her classmates had been questioning her nonstop about a physical disability and she was sick of the pestering. The questioning had shifted, though, and a couple of the boys had moved on to teasing her about it. I assured both my kids (then in just 1st and 2nd grade) that I would work with their teachers to take care of the issues.
As society has become more educated about bullying and the harmful, long-term impact it has on children, educators have become diligent about implementing anti-bullying programs. Research has shown that at schools where these programs are engaged, bullying is reduced by 50 percent. While zero tolerance policies in schools are helpful in combatting bullying in school, cultivating empathy at home can help prevent bullying from starting in the first place.
Our communities are made up of people from all sorts of backgrounds. We live and work alongside people of varying ethnicities, economic means, abilities, and family structures. And yet, our children seem largely unprepared to go to school with children who aren’t just like them. Curiosity can often shift to false assumptions or stereotypes and questions can escalate to cruel taunts. But preparing our children before they walk through the doors of their schools can go a long way in creating a safe, welcoming, and friendly learning environment that will have positive effects extending well beyond the walls of the school building.
Here are three things we can do now to help our kids view others through a more empathetic lens:
One of my favorite questions to ask my children is, “What if?” It’s also the question I need to frequently ask myself. When I get cut off in traffic… “What if they’re rushing to an emergency?” When someone is unnecessarily rude to me … “What if they’ve just received horrible news, or been up all night with a colicky baby, or simply hasn’t had time to eat yet today?” When I’m calculating how much to tip the waiter … “What if I just spent the last eight hours running back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room for less than minimum wage?” Engaging our imaginations helps us slow down and consider life from another person’s point of view to respond with kindness.
Children have active and vibrant imaginations that can conjure up the most elaborate stories or plans at any given moment. This can be a fantastic tool in cultivating empathy because we can use our imaginations to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.
Too often I catch myself telling my children, “don’t cry” as I try to comfort them. But having emotions and expressing them is incredibly healthy. I want my children to be able to share their feelings with me and I want them to be considerate of other’s feelings. Allowing our children to engage in their emotions in a healthy way can teach them to be understanding and caring toward others.
This summer I witnessed another mom at the pool demonstrate this beautifully. Her son had asked another child with an injury what had happened to him. The child mumbled an answer and walked away quickly. At first, her son seemed hurt by the exchanged but then she reminded him of when he’d injured himself and had to wear a cast. “Do you remember how you felt when people asked you about it constantly? Do you remember getting annoyed with having to answer questions about it multiple times a day?” Her son’s face lit up with understanding and he ran off to go play with the child and some other friends.
It’s important to expose our children to people and cultures who are different from them and show them that the world is filled with people of varying abilities, interests, ethnicities, and backgrounds. We shouldn’t shame them for pointing out differences, but teach them about how to respect others and celebrate how interesting and beautiful our uniqueness makes the world.
Not long ago I sat at a restaurant with my daughter who noticed a woman wearing a hijab at a nearby table. She kept glancing in the woman’s direction and then asked me in a loud whisper, “Why is she wearing that on her head?” I simply explained that it was an expression of her faith and that we’d talk about it more later. We went to the library that afternoon and checked out a book about a little girl who is celebrating Ramadan and my daughter learned more about why someone might wear a head covering. I also showed her images of catholic nuns, reminded her of the shawls worn by women in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and shared that there are a number of cultures and traditions that use head coverings for various reasons.
Talking about differences, educating our children, and removing the cloak of mystery that can sometimes surround people we don’t readily and easily identify with can help build understanding and empathy. Even better is to build friendships with people from varying age groups, economic backgrounds, abilities, ethnicities, and faith traditions.
Cultivating empathy at home will go a long way toward making school, and the outside world, a more inclusive, warm, and friendly place. It will reduce the number of children who return home in tears because someone told them they don’t belong and who they are is wrong. We can work on this in our children even before they reach school age. We can practice what we preach. We can roll up our sleeves and get to work loving our neighbors as ourselves and teaching our children to do the same.
Lauren Casper is an essayist, author and advocate writing about loss, hope, faith, social issues, and being a good neighbor in a messed up world. You can find her online at laurencasper.com.