Thoughtful Parenting: Cultivating empathy

Libby Christensen
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

Growing up as a little girl in North Carolina, I was often told that I needed to be nice. Let me be honest, that didn’t always come easy for me.

Now as a parent and staff for the CSU Routt County 4-H Program, I reflect on those social encouragements and ponder what traits I hope to instill in my own children and this community’s youth. Rather than being nice, I seek to encourage kindness through empathy.

Empathy is a term used to describe a range of emotional abilities, but at its core, empathy is the ability to relate to other’s people’s emotions by mentally simulating their situation and understanding their emotional response based on their experiences, not your own. It is often confused with sympathy.

A quick example of empathy is accurately detecting when your child is afraid and needs encouragement. Sympathy is something you feel for someone who has recently lost a loved one.

Empathy is both a trait and a skill. Children often begin to show signs of empathy in infancy, and the trait continues to develop steadily through childhood and adolescence. What can you do to encourage empathy in your children and youth you work with?

Incentivize empathy through interdependence. If you depend on someone, you are more motivated to understand what that person is feeling and vice versa. This can also have negative consequences. Folks are more likely to feel empathy for those that they identify with. Empathy toward insiders can limit our capacity to empathize with people outside our immediate circles. Create opportunities for your children to form bonds with individuals from different backgrounds from your own family.

Encourage empathic behaviors on a small scale. Toddlers develop empathy in sharing, apologizing and helping others. In early childhood, kids start to imagine how others feel. In conversations with your child, ask questions about others’ experiences and ask how they think their actions impact others.

Finally, practice what you preach. It is often easy for those in power to be less empathic. As a parent, or a youth leader, be cognizant of this power dynamic. Seek opportunities to consider the emotional response of the youth you are engaging. This can be a great opportunity to practice active listening.

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