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Developing Empathy and Compassion in Children

By October 20, 2013 Holistic Center

Teaching children how to understand someone else’s feelings and practice compassion wisely takes consistent modeling and time. A child’s level of social and emotional development matures with age. A two-year old is just learning to be autonomous and even though a three-year old child has a greater awareness of themselves, they still are not capable of fully understanding why someone feels or behaves the way they do.

Around the age of four, children are more capable of looking at the world outside of themselves and interpreting the reactions of others. This is a very important time, we as parents and educators of young children want to be able to help children identify their emotions and help them process them in a healthy, responsible manner, and we must also help them learn to NOT accept responsibility for others’ unhealthy emotional responses as well.

Many of us can remember as children being told to give someone a hug after they hurt us in some way, or we were told to say “I am sorry” or “I forgive you” to end a fight. The majority of the time, the adult’s intention was to teach the children forgiveness andor to bring peace to the situation, but what really happens with this style of guidance is something altogether different.

Let’s look at one case scenario. Xavier is building a tower of blocks and Susan walks over, knocks them down and starts laughing. Xavier stands up and starts crying and screaming at Susan and hits her. Susan starts crying and hits Xavier for being “mean to her”. An adult walks over to the children and tries to find out what happened and is told that Susan has knocked down Xavier’s blocks and hit him and that Xavier hit her. The adult asks Susan if she did it and Susan shrugs and doesn’t verbally respond. The adult then asks Xavier if he hit Susan and he shrugs his shoulders too.

Traditionally, most adults would either get the children to “hug and make up”, or put them both in time out. If the adult in this situation followed the old practice of putting both the children in time out or forced the children to “hug and make up” to bring peace to the room, Susan would have lost an opportunity to learn how to handle someone else’s emotional response and solve her problem without harming someone else and Xavier would have lost an opportunity to learn how to use helpful words instead of his fists to express his emotions and have learned that’s its normal to be angry and nothing to feel guilty about.

Time out and forced “making-up” may bring the appearance of peace to the room, but not to the minds of the children involved. Maybe Susan knocked the blocks down not because she was bad, naughty or in a bad mood; but because she thought it would be fun to watch them fall, and it didn’t occur to her to ask for more blocks to make her own tower. Maybe Xavier was still mad at her when he was forced to stuff his feelings and pretend he wasn’t.

Providing guidance means the adult spends time to question the children to find out what they are really thinking and feeling, and helps them verbalize those feelings and discuss healthier ways of handling them in the future, this helps them recognize other people’s emotions as well. When adults provide guidance instead of discipline, children receive precious opportunities to feel heard, respected and empowered; which in turn helps them develop empathy and compassion for others.

It is said that “children can be cruel”. Unfortunately in our culture this idea has become a belief. It is not the nature of a child to be cruel. Children are taught how to respond to their environment by the adults in their life and other cultural influences. If empathy and compassion are part of a child’s daily learning experience, we can change this accepted cultural belief and transform it into a belief that all children are children, inexperienced and still engaged in a lifelong learning process.

With this belief there is no need for an adult to fear that if they don’t “get a hold” of the child the child will take over; or that the child will become “spoiled and selfish”.  Children who are taught empathy and compassion by demonstration become far from spoiled and selfish, they become amazing young people concerned for the people, animals, and environment around them.  They become empowered members of society at younger and younger ages.  Let’s give kids a chance! Teach empathy, wise compassionate action and then watch the children around you bloom and grow into the beautiful beings they are!

– Elizabeth Sabet