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!