Teaching empathy another job for parents

October 12, 1997|By Susan Reimer

HOW WOULD YOU feel if someone did that to you?"

I have asked that question so many times, I am the one with no feelings -- in my lips or tongue.

"How do you think she would feel if she could hear what you are saying about her? How would you like it if someone said that about your hair/pimples/father?" (Fill in the blank.)

I am a car-pooling mother of two, trapped in a matrix of rides to pools, fields and baseball diamonds, and, unless I turn the radio up very loud, most of what I hear is kids ripping other kids.

The van door slides shut with the deposit of a child in front of a house, and I can almost hear the clicks as the knives of the remaining passengers open.

When children are not being wantonly cruel to one another, they are being openly rude to their parents. Just as often, I hear myself saying: "How do you think I feel when you say things like that to me? How would you feel if I treated you the way you treat me?"

Among the lessons parents try to teach children, only table manners are more frustrating.

It is as simple to understand as the Golden Rule -- "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." But nothing is more easily extinguished by a child's self-concern than any impulse to take on another's burden as his own.

And that is what empathy is. It is not sympathy. Sympathy is a way of reacting to someone who is suffering. Empathy is feeling that suffering as if it were your own. In its simplest form, it is flinching when someone else slams his finger in a door. At its most sophisticated, it is their pain in your heart.

Robert Coles, in his latest book, "The Moral Intelligence of Children," suggests that empathy is the cornerstone of morality. Only a keenly developed sense of another's pain will ensure that we act kindly -- morally -- toward all people.

And Daniel Goleman, in his book "Emotional Intelligence," suggests that it is the job of parents to use moments of emotion in our children's lives to help them understand what they are feeling and why, and how another might feel.

"Whenever you point out how another person is feeling to a child, that's a little lesson in empathy," says Goleman. "Empathy is gained by coming to understand that you're not the only person in the world with feelings."

The current thinking is that empathy is part of a child's original packaging, like sucking and the startle reflex. Scientists point to the contagious crying in the hospital nursery and to the efforts of one toddler to soothe another with a cookie or a toy.

But if kids come wired with empathy, how does science explain the way big brothers treat little sisters or the way teens treat their parents? You would expect children to feel empathy first and strongest for those they love, but it is toward them that children appear most ambivalent.

Other behavioral scientists suggest that empathy comes in fits and starts to children and that it requires maturity to understand another's pain and seek some way to end it. Not until the age of 9 or 10 are children capable of empathy, they say. But it seems to me that is also the age when children are getting to be really good at cruelty.

No, I don't think empathy is there in children at birth. I think they cry in the nursery because they are annoyed, not because they are empathetic. And I don't think it comes with maturity, like a deep voice or body hair.

No. Empathy is one more thing we are going to have to teach our children.

Experts like Goleman suggest these lessons -- after you have taught them the Golden Rule:

* Praise your child for acts of kindness, not just academic or athletic achievement.

* Watch a movie or a television show with your child and talk about what motivates the characters to act as they do.

* Teach your child the words for the emotions he feels: jealousy, frustration, pity or embarrassment. Only when he can recognize and communicate his emotions can he respond to another's.

* Help your child learn nonverbal cues like facial expressions and body language. People-watch in the mall and try to guess with him what others are feeling.

* When something happens to you, tell your child about it. How you felt or what your friend felt or how you managed to resolve a problem.

* Make sure your questions are neutral: Ask "How did things go?" Not "Did you do something to hurt Sally's feelings?"

I would add that we must demonstrate empathy ourselves -- most importantly, toward our children, difficult as it is sometimes. Only if they feel it, can they truly understand it.

If Robert Coles is right, empathy is the underpinning of a child's moral life.

And we thought table manners were important.

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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