There are so many values to teach our children, right? Empathy can be a hard one for little ones, who so often believe the world revolves around their a** only. You may believe that empathy wouldn’t be something discussed in our house, if you read Our Family Suck-It Bucket. I thought maybe I should follow that one up. I don’t want us to look like total heartless bastages.
Empathy is something that I was brought up knowing, and more importantly, understanding. My brothers and I were told often to show empathy, and reminded the difference between that and sympathy. Jackpot – not so much. He admits to being brought up in a more “it’s all about me” household. He, by nature, wants to help others. That’s just who he is. But, he has a hard time putting himself in someone else’s shoes. That has changed over the years, as it is stressed more and more in our household. This first-hand experience leads me to believe that in the fight of nature vs. nurture, when it comes to empathy, nurture wins. We CAN bring up children who can put themselves in someone else’s position, and want to help, even in this God-forsaken selfie society.
Now, here’s where the fine line is: Teaching them that life isn’t always fair, and you have to throw some things in the suck-it bucket, and at the same time teaching them to consider how they would feel in someone else’s unfair situation. Should the other people suck it up, or should they do all they can to help? Realistically, there is no way to teach a young child how to discern the difference. What we can do, is to use every opportunity we find to show them how to act in different situations. This, of course, is going to be different in every home, depending on where your empathy levels are.
So, how do we do it? Sometimes we find the easiest way is to let PBS raise our kids. Let’s face it, they LOVE those whiny little bald kids and talking animals. They feel like they’re friends of theirs, making whatever is being taught on any specific episode WAY more important than anything we could say to them. So you must, must, memorize some of those songs they sing over and over -“Think about how someone else is feeling”. They understood it coming from Teacher Harriet. So, of course, if you sing her song, you become the expert.
Okay, so we’ve let cartoons handle most of it, with small reinforcements in-between. That’s what really drives it home. Then they start feeling like they’re too big for those shows. Then we need to pick up the pace. Every single opportunity you have to sneak an empathy lesson in there, you have to do it. Here is a real life example of one of those opportunities in our house. This is actually a personal Facebook post of mine, but I feel it represents what we do here perfectly, so I’m going to use it. If you are a friend who has already seen it, sorry, and feel free to skip down to next paragraph.
We finished our latest summer read aloud book today – Charlotte’s Web. As I relayed the words of Charlotte’s demise, I am interrupted. “Mommy, are you crying?” Well, of course. So I go on to explain (because they obviously didn’t get it!) that this beautiful soul had moved on from this earth, and her best friend would be without her company. Wilbur would be very sad, and that made me sad. Nothing. I’m thinking, what the hell is wrong with the fruit of my sobbing loins (is that a thing? I dunno.) ??? And wait. Why are they looking at me like that? Are they judging me? I’m losing control of the situation. Let me try something else. “Okay. It’s like Charlotte was the most important Lego in what Wilbur liked to build everyday, but now the Lego piece is lost forever.” Horrified faces. Mic drop.
So, you see, here was chance to teach them a life lesson. I will admit, I had expected going into this book that I may have to have a discussion with them about death. That never seems to come up, and frankly I sleep with one eye open, due to the fact that none of them seem to get the permanence of death, so who knows what they’ll try. But, aside from the fact that I’m worried I’ve given birth to the Menendez brothers, I noticed straight away (I turned British for a second there) that they didn’t seem to feel anything for someone who had lost their best friend. This mainly,I’m sure, is due to the fact that they have never experienced anything even close to that. Slightly due, though, to the whole world revolving around their ass thing. If it’s not what they are feeling, why would anyone else? That’s why we keep teaching. So we don’t send them out into the world as self-involved assholes.
My kids are actually very sweet, in spite of me ;), so even while not being totally proficient in empathy just yet, they lean more towards it every day. They see a sibling get hurt, they ask if they’re okay, then tell them they remember how much it hurt when that happened to them. They’re getting it. I haven’t totally failed yet.
Do you find empathy to be easy or hard to teach to your children?
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