Kids are not born little angels, or at least, my hellion isn’t. Felix — my pint-sized Machiavelli — is very aware of power dynamics, and will go to extreme lengths to get the upper hand in a relationship. This might mean pinching his friends in school when they won’t play with him, or scratching me when I won’t let him have dessert without finishing his dinner.
“Why would you want to hurt your Daddy?” I’ve asked him in the past. But this is a question he can’t answer, because he really doesn’t know. His empathy muscles are still weak. He scratches out of anger, without thinking about his actions, and from a selfishness so intense that he’s not considering the pain that he’s causing me.
What can you do to help your child learn that other people have emotions — that they get sad and feel pain, just like he does — so that he modifies his behavior so as not to hurt others or their feelings?
The first step toward building empathy is talking about feelings with your kid. For a young child, like my four-year-old, instead of asking rhetorical questions like “Why would you hit your friend?” I simply tell him straight-up: Hitting is wrong. It’s not how we treat people. Socratic methods might work for older children, or those with a more advanced emotional palette, but at least for my hard-headed, firecracker of a little boy, it doesn’t get through. In fact, it often aggravates the problem, because the questions perplex him, or else open the door to another conflict.
For older children, the situation gets more complex. Certainly technology plays a role in our ability to understand and sympathize with others — often, a derogatory role. As the philosophic comedian Louis CK said, don’t get your kids smartphones.
Kids are mean, and it’s ’cause they’re trying it out. They look at a kid and they go, You’re fat,’ and then they see the kid’s face scrunch up and they go, Oh, that doesn’t feel good to make a person do that.’ But they gotta start with doing the mean thing. But when they write You’re fat,’ [on a smart phone] then they just go, Mmm, that was fun, I like that.’
Because they’re not able to see the other kid’s face scrunch up, they don’t realize that they’re causing another person pain. Instead, they feel the pleasure that can come with being angry and acting on impulse. Losing control in that way can be an addictive rush.
Anyone who writes on the Internet knows this phenomenon. Internet commenters are the worst! They tend to be the people who don’t agree with you, because those are the ones moved to respond, and they rarely speak with any thoughtfulness, or in an attempt to foster conversation. Rather, they shoot from the hip, spitting hot anger without concern for how it might sound to the recipient. (This is just what most writers try to avoid they take time to draft their work, and consider how their readers will encounter it.) To see an example of this, check out the scathing responses to my post on conformity and standardized education over on Shine. (Ouch!) If this is how mature adults behave online, then you can imagine kids being that much worse.
If your kids are old enough to have their own smartphones, and at some point they will be, then set clear limits. As Michele Filgate wrote on Salon, after taking a taking a break from social media for a week, even adults need to set rules for themselves as to when they’re online, so as to prioritize alone time and face time with actual friends. Being in the stream of online socialization can be, in a strange way, dehumanizing. It’s not as emotionally fulfilling or as warm a form of communicating as being with someone in real life, and you don’t have the opportunity for contemplation or reflection that you have when you’re by yourself. I find those solitary down-times are when I think most deeply about my life and behavior, and set goals for myself to do better. Online, I’m too distracted to think too long about anything.
The amount of stuff and wealth you have matters as well. As Carolyn Castiglia put it here on Babble, “Wealthy People Lack Empathy.” She points to a piece in The New York Times, “Rich People Care Less,” about research that show how the wealthy only speak to the wealthy, and have a disregard for people of less status or money.
According to an article on the website Social Consciousness about happiness, instead of buying material things, you’ll feel better spending money on experiences that are shared with other people dinners out, concerts, parties. In other words, be generous, and encourage your child to do the same. As the saying goes, time is money. So don’t just spend money on other people, volunteer time as well.
Finally, The New York Times reports that an easy way to build empathy is to read! Specifically, literary fiction, which may be more intellectually challenging than popular fiction, but puts a reader deeply into the mind of a character or characters, building emotional muscles that help you understand another person from a different background or situation. Those imaginative experiences translate to real life, making it easier for you to see problems from other people’s perspective, and act with greater compassion.
Speaking of empathy, remember that your kids are young and inexperienced, and also easily confused by their emotions. I mean, I’m easily confused by my emotions, so I can only imagine what Felix is feeling! So don’t get too frustrated or angry if they just don’t get how to put themselves in other people’s shoes. Nor should you worry you’ve got a sociopath on your hands. Kids grow into their feelings just like they grow into their bodies, and their sense of selves. Be patient, stay positive, and don’t give up. Your kids learn by example, so keep them in mind and set a good one, eh?