Thursday, October 21, 2010

Teaching Empathy

Kindness, empathy, generosity... how in the world do you teach these things?  How do you instill in someone, especially little someones, who by their very nature and development are completely self-centered, to consider other people's feelings?  Or for that matter, to even notice other people's feelings, when they see themselves as the center of the universe?  This is an area of parenthood that feels like it is so very important, so very abstract & so very overwhelming.


Teaching my boys concrete things like ABC's or how to brush teeth, or any of the other million things kids need to learn, is challenge enough... let alone instructing how to process, name and communicate a complex array of emotions.  Or how to help them understand that their actions have consequences for other people?  (For the record both boys now know all of their ABC's and last week Quinn read his first word, moose.  Very exciting times around here!) 

Remy has recently started saying "Don't worry Mommy" in various situations.  Mostly benign ones like when I call the dog & he doesn't come, I hear his sweet little voice saying "Don't worry Mommy, you'll find your doggy."  Or I'll hear him talking to his toys, "Don't worry potato-head, you'll find your baby-potato."  Or if Quinn is crying about something Remy will inform me that he is crying because he misses his Daddy.  These observations tell me that, although he can be the biggest rascal around, he is learning how to notice other people's feelings.  That even at 2-3/4 years old it is possible to be empathetic.  Of course he will just as easily take a toy from his brother or hit when he doesn't get what he wants immediately.  But it is encouraging to start seeing the possibility of brotherly kindness in our household.

This topic has been coming up a lot for me lately.  I see it when we are at the park and there are other kids playing... how some kids see Quinn & seek him out to play & are kind and patient with him.   Some kids tolerate him but aren't sure what to make of him.  And how other kids see him and make fun of how he runs a little funny or how he doesn't talk like them.  It used to really sting when the latter happened.  Now, a bit further into this journey, it still stings but I have a much more realistic perspective on it.  How nature vs. nurture plays a role in every day interactions.  I think that some kids are, by nature, more kind & gentle.  And that some are not.  But it is in the nurturing that *every* kid has the ability to learn how to be kind-er & patient-er.  This is another area where I have been, on more than one occasion, happily surprised to see kids who look "rough" turn out to be the ones who are the sweetest with my boy.  Lessons in not judging books by their covers are a recurring theme in our life with Quinn.

Teaching empathy, one playground interaction at a time, appears to be my new mission.

Yep, a challenge indeed... but totally worth the hard work.


Ann said...

I think these have been some of my favorite photos. They have such a timeless feel. Oh that feeling on the playground! Can anything be more raw? Sometimes it feels as if we were put in the front of the battlefield and most of our armor was taken away. I hope that the majority have empathy and are kind and patient.

Judes said...

We are dealing with this almost daily with Dex. Kids target others that are weak or different. Fourth grade is hard, social groups have developed which can lead to bullying. He is often the victim, but he is learning to stand up for himself and to not tolerate bad behavior, he has 'broken up' with friends when they are not nice to him, or not nice to other kids.

It does make him sad that his friends can be so insensitive. We just remind him that kids are childish, fickle, self-centered, have little impulse control and usually behave badly to gain attention or acceptance, that it's not about him. Most importantly, we remind him that there are other kids that will be nice to him. Its no wonder why he relates better to adults.

We feel lucky... Dexter shows empathy and has a strong sense of fairness and often mediates between sides. We think he'll make a great diplomat.

Barb said...

I can hear you talking when I read this Katie. What an amazing Mom you are.