Nature vs nurture: Are we born with empathy or are we taught it? We think the answer is “yes!” One of the goals of Mission I’m Possible is to teach kids to be aware of their “inner landscape.” That is to say to be aware of what feelings and thoughts are arising at any given time. When we have that self-awareness, we are naturally more prone to be empathetic. We think everyone is born with a kind heart (nature), but that acting kindly towards others is learned (nurture). By completing the missions, your child is learning to practice kindness. So, Mission I’m Possible is teaching children empathy. If your child has completed all the missions, what should you do next?
What is Empathy?
The Mission I’m Possible secret missions try to help kids expand their awareness of others’ experiences. By being mindful of their own negative thoughts and expressing positive thoughts, they work towards helping others feel loved and appreciated. By practicing, they strengthen their minds and become more mentally fit. The missions aim to help kids put themselves in others’ shoes, to see people from a larger perspective, while actively practicing kindness.
That’s really the key, isn’t it? We can put ourselves in another’s shoes for many different reasons, can’t we? For example, advertisers, salespeople, politicians, actors, and religious leaders are often very skilled at taking other perspectives but they may not necessarily care about others. Without any kindness at all, con men and abusers often take others’ perspectives so they can exploit them. So empathy means having kindness and compassion along with having a larger perspective.
Yeah, about that… it’s not a thing! We’re sorry to get your hopes up, but there’s nowhere to ship ’em off to for learning empathy. It’s on us as parents to model it. Children learn empathy both from watching how we treat others and from experiencing our empathy for them. This can take many forms:
- tuning in to their physical and emotional needs
- appreciating their unique personalities
- showing a genuine interest in their lives
- creating and joining activities that honor the things they enjoy
- engaging with restaurant servers, store employees, or delivery people and not treating them like they’re invisible
- reaching out to a new family in the neighborhood
- asking about the new kid in class and planting seeds about how to help him/her fit in
- asking them to explain how a TV or movie character modeled empathy
- pointing out when someone, especially a stranger, was empathetic towards them
- being consistent with a clear message of kindness and positivity
Create Chances for Teaching Children Empathy
As we said above, we think that children are born with the capacity for empathy and that it needs to be nurtured throughout their lives. Learning empathy is a lot like learning a language, sport, or musical instrument; it requires practice and guidance. Consistently seeing other people’s perspectives helps make empathy a natural reflex. Here are some suggestions for teaching children empathy outside of Mission I’m Possible:
- If you’ve completed the Mission I’m possible series with your child, then you are familiar with the missions. Don’t be shy about making up your own secret missions!
- Have family meetings. Encourage your kids to take the perspective of other family members. If there is a conflict with a sibling, cousin, or friend, a great exercise is to ask each child to verbalize why the other child is upset. They naturally want to air their own grievance, but be firm and clear. “Jimmy, I want you to say why you think Leroy is unhappy.” Then, after you’ve sufficiently dragged it out of Jimmy, “OK, now Leroy, tell me why Jimmy is unhappy.”
- Encourage empathy for their classmates and other peers. When hearing about a conflict at school or within a team, etc., ask them to verbalize their peers? perspectives.
- When hearing about a conflict that didn’t involve your child, but your child witnessed, ask them to annunciate what the two parties were in conflict about.
- Reflect on empathy and caring. Throughout the day, help them notice when someone exhibits strong empathy, or lack thereof, either in real life or in a book, movie, or TV show. Discuss why acts of empathy are important and why lacking empathy can be harmful. Ask them how someone could have been more empathic.
- Discuss ethical dilemmas. Discuss with your child ethical dilemmas that may help them appreciate various perspectives, e.g., “Should I invite a new classmate to my birthday party when my best friend doesn’t like her?”
Liars and Teasers and Bullies, Oh My! (Empathy for “The Bad Guy”)
One of the hardest things when it comes to teaching children empathy is to also have empathy for the jerks in their lives. Heck, it’s difficult to do ourselves! It’s easier to have empathy for someone when the circumstances are not of their own making. But what about the mean kid in the class? What about the cruel teacher? What about the bad guys throughout history, like Adolph Hitler? Should we have empathy for them?
The short answer is: Of course we should! The long answer is a bit more complicated. How do we have empathy for someone’s untoward behavior? How do you have empathy for the bully that picks on the smaller kids or the teacher that makes kids cry? The answer is simple actually. Ask our kids to ask themselves, “Would I want to trade places with them?” Assuming the answer to that question is no (we hope!), it begs the next question, “Why not?” This is another way of putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes.
We know, as parents, that the bully or the mean teacher is wounded and acting out of their own pain. That knowledge helps us as adults, but can sound preachy to kids and definitely go over the heads of the younger kids. But posing the question, seriously, to your child, “Would you trade places with that mean kid?” They will naturally say no, even if they can’t quite articulate the reason. But you can help them understand why. You can help them see that the “Bad Guy” is someone we should have compassion for. Most kids’ movies have a clearly defined bad guy. Take the opportunity to discuss with them how sad it would be to be that person. “How would you like to wake up every day and you’re so-n-so?”
Does that mean we excuse their behavior? Of course not! We can have empathy for Adolph Hitler precisely because we are so glad we’re not the kind of person who wants to torch the world. That doesn’t diminish his crimes. In fact, we can say that the worse the behavior, the deeper our compassion should be. We can say the bully’s behavior is not ok and be upset with it, but still have compassion for the person. There’s a big difference between compassion and idiot compassion!
We have a colleague who uses the example of a vicious dog. Perhaps we are walking down the street and behind the fence there’s a dog that clearly wants to devour us. Now, we know that when that dog was born, it was a sweet puppy and we know some bad things happened to it to make it so mean. We don’t have to know what those circumstances were because we see the evidence: what was once a sweet puppy is now a ferocious, scary dog. That can be the point of compassion, the basis of our empathy. But do we go over and stick our hand through the fence? Of course not! Why? Just because we understand the behavior, doesn’t mean we excuse the behavior and let ourselves be victims. And just like we don’t voluntarily let the vicious dog chew our arm off, we don’t let the bully’s bad behavior go unreported or unchallenged.
The Mission I’m Possible series uses the idea of being a secret agent to add some fun and silliness to life while bolstering children’s empathy and emotional base. If they’ve completed the series, perhaps it’s time to graduate to being a superhero. Who are your kids’ superheroes? Certainly, they know fictional characters who show kindness to the “bad guys” in the stories/movies. It’s easier to navigate tricky situations when we have a role model and stories to draw from. But what about real people in their lives? Or real people from history?
We have a colleague whose hero is Nelson Mandela. Whenever he feels justified blasting some total jerk who SERIOUSLY deserves it, he remembers a story where President Mandela was dining in a restaurant and asked one of his aides to invite a gentleman who was dining alone to join them. The gentleman did join them, but ate his meal quickly, eyes down, with trembling hands. When the gentleman departed, President Mandela explained to the others that he was one of the guards who frequently tortured him in prison. If Mr. Mandela can dig that deep, our colleague reasons, then he, too, can certainly let someone off the hook for comparatively minor offences that occur during the day.
Mr. Mandela was practicing empathy without having idiot compassion. He also resisted the urge for revenge or to humiliate the gentleman. His empathy was so deep, that he was able to invite “the bad guy” to dine with him. Can you imagine having that depth of character? Knowing stories like this helps us know that we can do it too. Helping your child identify with a beloved “good guy/gal” will help them build their moral character and be quicker to go to a place of empathy. When you hear a story of deep empathy, be sure to share it with your kids. Ask them to think about people in their lives who are heroic in their empathy. Encourage them to emulate their heroes and, in so doing, become heroes themselves.
It’s Up to Us!
We know it’s a full-time job, but our kids need our help to nurture that spark of empathy that they were born with. With the help of educators, mental health practitioners, and online resources like HAPPÉ, you can do it!
Here’s a recap of some effective tactics for teaching children empathy:
- Be an empathy role model.
- Talk openly about who is a good example of an empathetic person.
- Create opportunities to practice empathy.
- Practice having empathy for the less savory people, the bad guys, in their lives.
- Discuss the difference between empathy and “idiot compassion.”
- Tell stories of people who have demonstrated heroic empathy.
- Encourage them to be empathy superheroes!
HAPPÉ is a state-of-the-art program that creates a healthy and positive outlook on life and teaches children to manage their emotions. The HAPP? program aims to teach children to take control of life’s unscripted side and their emotions independently, as well as live positively. Fun micro-lessons and challenges are sent to your phone or email weekly.
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