Why you need to teach your child empathy

Reading Time: 4 minutes

By Dr Justin Coulson

Every day the newsreaders tell us another story (or several) that remind us how badly some people in our society treat others. As an example, from one day’s news reports recently:

A teenager pulled a trigger of a gun and killed a man
A woman was indecently assaulted walking home
A boy who killed one of his ‘friends’ with an axe is seeking a reduced sentence for his crime
A man threatened pharmacy staff with a hammer before stealing their cash
Politicians rorting, stealing, lying, and ‘doing dodgy deals’

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And the list goes on.

This is what a world without empathy looks like. It’s a brutal place where people don’t consider how things look from another person’s viewpoint; it’s a place where other’s feelings, perceptions, intentions and motives don’t matter.

Unfortunately, our kids are being exposed to it through their relationships and/or the media and it does affect them.

How to teach your children empathy – and why it matters

Children caring

A world without empathy is one where other people aren’t really people. Instead, they’re just objects, playthings or pawns to be manipulated for our own entertainment.

We can do horrid things to them and chuckle about their pain, saying “you’ll know better next time”. Haha. Very funny.

What can we as parents do to teach our children that other perspectives, other people, matter? I have three suggestions:

1. Remember it’s our responsibility for teaching our children empathy

The primary way to teach empathy to our kids is to show them empathy. That means we stop dismissing their emotions or being disapproving of their feelings. Our kids don’t need to be punished for feeling sad, angry, frustrated or afraid. They don’t need mum or dad telling them to ‘grow up’ or ‘get over it’.

To teach them empathy we make ourselves available to them, and when they are experiencing challenging emotions we turn towards those emotions and work our children through those emotions. They need our compassion – and then they can learn to be compassionate.

2. We monitor and guide technology and media use in the home

Research leaves no doubt that kids who are exposed to violent media and games act more violently (and less empathetically) than those who are not exposed to those games and media. A 14-year-old boy who spends all weekend and most nights shooting and stabbing for entertainment, even if it is in the virtual world, is at far higher risk of acting violently in the real world.

These games, movies and other media turn people into things – objects to be hit, beaten, stabbed, mutilated or killed – for entertainment. And the research is clear: such media objectifies others, and desensitises our kids, effectively muting or even destroying empathy.

3. Invite perspective taking

In my book, What Your Child Needs From You: Creating a Connected Family, I share the story of a six-year-old boy who took nuts to school with the intention to scare the life out of a classmate who had a peanut allergy. The boy was punished by the school and punished by his parents.

But I wonder what he really learnt?

When parents focus less on punishment and more on teaching through perspective taking, research shows that children learn more and they behave better. This boy’s parents might have done better to invite him to consider how his classmate would feel in such circumstances.

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They might help him see how scared that boy would feel when they next saw one another, or how he might feel about going to school in future. They could guide their offending son’s perspective to the fear and tears the boy with the allergies felt as he relived the experience with his parents after school that night.

There are few tools more powerful for creating empathy than the ability to take another’s perspective – to see the world through another’s eyes.

Where would you rather your children be?

Dr Justin Coulson

To live in a world without empathy is to live in a world that is ego-centric, dog-eat-dog, focused on me. A world where no one matters and my needs are king. A world without empathy would be a terribly unhappy place.

But … a world of empathy is one where people feel safe, secure and connected. It’s a place where we can trust that people are concerned for our needs and interests. It’s a world where people see into our hearts, and see through our eyes. A world with empathy is a world where people understand and care. A world with empathy is a world I want for my children.

Dr Justin Coulson is one of Australia’s leading experts in the areas of parenting, relationships and wellbeing. He is an international speaker, podcaster and author of three books including 21 Days to a Happier Family (Harper Collins, 2016) and 9 Ways to a Resilient Child (Harper Collins, 2017).

He and his wife Kylie are the parents of six daughters. When he is not spending time with his family he can be found doing TV and radio appearances as well as travelling around the country delivering talks and workshops at schools and organisations helping parents, students and staff improve their personal and professional relationships. For more see happyfamilies.com.au