Teaching empathy?

I got an email. You know the kind. Easier than a phone call, sure, but still my stomach dropped. My 6yo son had hurt the feelings of a classmate that day. Day-to-day first grade stuff you’d think, but in this case he told someone whose parents are divorced “You don’t really have dad.” Yikes! Doesn’t your heart just break for that child, hearing something not true, and painful, and in a group of peers? Aren’t you glad it wasn’t your kid that said it?

So my husband and I had the (rare – so glad it worked out this way) chance to discuss it before we saw him after school. Time enough to get over the shame-induced urge to sew the child’s mouth shut. This might be a good idea for other reasons, but… We decided it was another opportunity to work on empathy with this boy.

Our 6yo has lots of empathy for his parents and his shining hero (8yo brother) and some for his little brothers as well. That’s where he seems to draw a line though. If he loves you, his sympathy rests with you and he can show real empathy and compassion. Friends, acquaintances and strangers are on their own. Freud would have loved this kid. For experimentation, at any rate.

According to the experts, empathy is an ability that is partially inborn and partially developed. Nobody gets off the hook. So like kids who struggle with reading, kids who struggle with empathy need some extra tutoring. Research shows that, to improve these skills, first children need to know they have emotional safety at home. We feel pretty good about that one. Empathy needs to be modeled by the caregivers. OK, that happens fairly often. Then they need to get some skills. Suggestions for this include having kids make the facial expression they think someone would make in a certain situation and then describe the feeling that “face” gives them inside. Drawing pictures, telling stories, acting it out is all appropriate at this age.

Sound like a little much for a one-time comment? In truth this is way more important to us than this week’s spelling test (which we will easily spend an hour on). At the end of this, when asked what he’d learned he said, “I better just not talk about other kids’ families at all. This is hard!” I can live with that. For now.

How about your kids? All natural empaths? Or are you hoping to teach this life skill also?

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