Raise happy kids ― Teach them empathy

Make the world a better place with kind, caring and compassionate children. We tell you how to go about it.

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Ask any parent what their biggest wish for their child is and most of them will say “to be happy”. While there’s nothing wrong with wanting only the best for our offspring, many of us tend to misconstrue that keeping our kiddos happy means showering them with expensive gifts or making their lives easier.

This not only encourages entitlement and spoiled behaviour, but also results in unhappy children. Why? Because nothing feels as good as helping another person feel good.

Scientists have found out that our social brain ― the part of us that likes to be surrounded by friends and family ― lights up when we do something not driven by self-interest. In fact, showing care and concern for another person can make you happier than buying a new pair of shoes!

Engaging your social brain also does wonders for how well you thrive as person, notes Dr Matthew Lieberman, a neuroscientist and author of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. In his 2013 TEDx Talk, Lieberman points out one of the many benefits of doing something nice for others, “In the classroom, being social is treated as the enemy of learning, but it turns out that if you learn in order to teach someone else, you learn better than if you learn in order to take a test.”

“A child who does not receive empathy will not become empathic ― easy as that.”

Raising kind kids
The ability to recognise and share another’s person feelings or need help or comfort, and doing something to address it is known as empathy. Simply put, it’s being able to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

Sounds easy enough, but it’s harder to practice than you think ― especially in today’s social media world which keeps rewarding individualist behaviour. Many think empathy is hardwired in a person, that we are born with it, but family coach and parenting expert Cornelia Dahinten says it’s not that simple.

“The ability to be empathic is in everyone but also takes some guidance. It needs to be taught and by mirroring other people’s feelings,” Dahinten points out. “In a hostile environment empathy would not make sense. A child who does not receive empathy will not become empathic ― easy as that.”

Kids who are not empathetic grow up to be adults with no compassion. They don’t understand other people’s emotions, do not realise when they hurt someone, and frankly don’t care if they did. Children who understand others’ feelings on the other hand will try to change their behaviour because others have reacted negatively to it. They’ll also feel bad for their actions and try to comfort those they have hurt.

Empathy is so lacking in society these days that students in Denmark are taught how to be empathetic in school from a very young age. This is done through reading a wide range of stories, teaching them to self-regulate their feelings as well as using language to express themselves more. This probably explains why the Danes keep clinching the top spot in the happiness index year after year.

“It is actually very beneficial for society as a whole to raise empathic children,” Dahinten notes. “It will make it easier for the individual to build and keep relationships and empathic people are usually more liked and perceived more positively.”

Here are six simple ways to raise a kind and compassionate child who will be an asset to society…

1. Watch your language

As with everything in parenting, it’s all about being a good role model yourself. Your kids are constantly watching you, so be careful of what you say. Don’t diss others or use words like, “she is a mean person” or “he is selfish”.

Your child will link the words she hears to that person. So from then on, when junior meets Aunt Sarah, she will also remember her as the “mean one”, since that’s what mummy said about her. She is learning how to judge people without even getting to know them first.

Dahinten points out, “Also, when you speak badly about others, your child can’t help but wonder what you say about him or her.” When you do say something about them, your kids will use those words ― both negative and positive ― to make connect it to their own identity.

Five more ways to raise a model citizen, coming right up!

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2. Listen actively

When your child starts labelling other people’s behaviour: “Max is naughty” or “Suzie is lazy”, try to put some context behind those words. Explain to them why Max or Suzie might be acting that way.

Say something like, “Do you think Max is hungry, so he’s acting that way? Or maybe he’s just having a bad day, we all have them, don’t we?”. This will help your tyke understand the feelings behind certain behaviours, so that they will have a kinder conclusion as to why the person is acting that way. It will also help her to be more forgiving of negative actions.

Don’t bypass junior’s feelings though. If Max’s undesirable behaviour has affected her and she’s trying to communicate that to you, don’t brush her off. Instead, address it by asking more questions, so that that she can identify and label her feelings.

Things you can say, include: “I see how you feel, do you want to tell me more about it? Can you think of a reason why Max behaved that way? Have you ever felt like this before?”. By doing so, you’re sending the message to your mini-me that although she should take other people’s feelings into consideration, she shouldn’t do it at the expense of her own feelings.

3. Help them to recognise emotions

When your child is able to articulate how she’s feeling, she won’t resort to shutting down emotionally or verbally when things get tough. Nor will she point fingers at others even when she’s the one in the wrong. The easiest way to help your tyke recognise an emotion is for you to speak openly about it. When junior is feeling emotional, say something like, “Wow! You look angry, is that how you feel?”.

“Always praise or criticise processes, not results. It creates a growth mindset and instils the value of empathy.”

4. Praise acts of kindness and compassion

By all means, boost your mini-me’s self-confidence by celebrating her achievements. But don’t forget to praise her for her acts of kindness as well. By doing so, you’re teaching her that while she should be focused on reaching her goals, she should still be mindful of the needs of others. “Always praise or criticise processes, not results. It creates a growth mindset and instils the value of empathy,” says Dahinten. And be specific. Say things like, “Oh, that was so kind of you, thanks for helping, I was really tired today”, or “It was really nice of you talk to that boy who was sitting alone in the sand pit, I think you brightened up his day”.

5. Open up avenues for deeper discussion

Reading books or watching programmes about people who live in different countries or who have to tackle difficult situations can open your child’s eyes to the plight of others around her. Junior only has her own experiences as a reference, so when she enters another person’s reality ― even when it’s through a fantasy story ― she will understand that the world is made up of so many different types of people and experiences.

This will teach her to respect diversity, which is very important in a multi-cultural society such as Singapore. When she opens herself up to people from different racial, ethnic or socio-economic backgrounds, she’s becomes more accepting of who they are and this will enable her to be less judgmental and intolerant.

Taking her on your travels, especially to developing countries, or doing charity work will also build her awareness of and sensitivity to other people’s struggles. Placing your child in an unfamiliar situation will also heighten her ability to empathise with strangers or anyone who might be feeling left out.

6. Allow them a do-over

Failure is part of any success and that knowledge creates resilience,” says Dahinten. Everyone makes mistakes, especially kids who are still learning about themselves and may be more self-centered by nature.

Encourage and guide your child to be the best version of themselves, but recognise when their efforts fall short ― give them a chance to make things right. Explain to them that only the bravest people own up to their mistakes, make amends and improve themselves. Say something like, “Do you know what you did? And do you know what you can do differently next time?”

Give your child as much encouragement and support as she needs, but under no circumstance should you end up doing her “work” for her. Don’t apologise on her behalf or correct her mistakes. She needs to find her own way out of her own mess. This will teach her to venture out of her comfort zone and grow into a responsible and mindful adult.

Cornelia Dahinten is a family coach and director of The Parent You Want To Be ― Conscious Parenting Training and Playgroups, which organises regular parenting workshops and talks.

Photos: iStock

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