Children and Empathy

I fell the other day. The chair and I just didn’t connect somehow, and with a crash, I found myself on the floor with a sore elbow. Emmy came rushing over and touched my arm. “You OK? I’m sorry!” she said with concern all over her small face.

Looking at headlines on news sites can be a depressing and horrifying thing. Over and over again, we witness the terrible results when people fail to learn empathy and compassion. Where there is no compassion and no ability to connect with the humanness in others, people become bestial, and terrible consequences result.

Children learn empathy and compassion in the very air they breathe in the home.When babies are attended to promptly when they cry or are hungry or wet, they learn that they have value, and they learn to trust. On this trust hangs everything.

As children grow, we as parents and teachers and neighbors teach about compassion by example. Mothers attending to a hurt child inquire, “Are you OK?” That’s where Emmy learned to be concerned for her own mother. She had experienced parental concern many times before, and she knew that when someone is hurt, it’s a bad thing.

We had a wonderful neighbor when I was growing up. She had seven children herself and was matriarch of the neighborhood. One time when I was rushing to school in second grade, I tripped and fell directly into a muddy puddle. My mother was already gone when I ran back home sobbing with a torn up  knee and dirty socks. I didn’t know what to do. Mrs. S. saw me on the porch and brought me inside her house. A few minutes later, with a bandaged knee and a pair of her daughter’s clean socks, I was ready to go on to school. Yes, compassion can be learned from neighbors.

Children can also learn compassion by how we treat pets and wild animals. A bird feeder gives opportunity to talk about how birds get hungry in winter and that we can help. Daily feeding and caring for a pet provides valuable lessons for children on responsibility for others, including creatures of all sizes.

Our son Charlie had a parakeet that lived for 13 years. I think the reason the bird lived so long was that the 9-year-old new pet owner learned that careful handling, feeding, cage cleaning and nail trimming all made for a healthy and happy bird. Early on when I would catch a feeder empty or water tank depleted, I would make an issue of it. “Imagine yourself thirsty and hungry and there’s no way to tell anyone!” I would say. It made the children think. It made them empathize. That is something they will carry with them all their lives.

Our own pain makes us sensitive to the pain of others. If you’ve ever known chronic and severe pain or even a brief time of real agony physically or emotionally, it makes you keenly aware of suffering. And when someone else is in pain you will never be able to see it without understanding and sympathy springing up.

We may see more or less of this sympathy, empathy and compassion in our children’s personalities. Type A’s especially  need to be reminded continually of the need to imagine oneself in the shoes of others. Without that ability, that particular personality type risks becoming ruthless.

This world is a cold and bleak place without empathy. As we carefully study our children and their development, it’s important to ask God to help us instill in them the compassion of our Savior, and His love for others. The innate selfishness we as humans possess in our sinful hearts can only be replaced when our hearts are made right with God.

Our first example is found in Jesus himself. I love this line from Matthew, Chapter 9, verse 36.

But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd.

He was moved with compassion. That says it all.

7 thoughts on “Children and Empathy

  1. Ingrid Schlueter says:

    Today Will was waiting for his father to pick him up from a lesson and a frail and elderly nun sat down next to him in the lobby. She began telling him about her grave prognosis from the doctor she had just received. Will said she talked to him for nearly an hour while he was waiting. He said he asked her name so he could pray for her. Tom and I told him how important his time was to this woman who was needing someone to talk to. Someday we all may need an ear and some understanding. This is a practical example as recently as this afternoon of how empathy can make a difference to just one person.

  2. sunnypatchcottage says:

    I agree Ingrid! I try to teach our kids about empathy. It is a little harder teaching it to ones on the autism spectrum, but it can be done. So many kids..and adults…seem to have no empathy at all!

  3. Becky says:

    Ingrid –

    I so enjoyed and agree with your, “Children and Empathy” article.

    I am so thankful for my Parent’s who gave tirelessly to the church my Dad was Pastor of. To this day I see folks from the past and they talk about my Parents and the ministry of the church and how it touched and changed their lives.

    My husband’s Mother was a very empathic lady…she could take nothing and make something out of it and make you feel good about it. After my Mom died she was such a comfort and always had open arms for a hug and kind/calm words to encourage my heart. I am so thankful my husband learned that from her!

    My Mom always said, when I started dating, watch how the young man treats his Mom and his Sister and that is how he will treat you. She was so right!

    I think all Christians should show the gift of mercy to others…where would be without God’s mercy in our own lives…

    Thanks again.

    P.S. Sorry for rambling.

  4. Lori Glass says:

    Hi Ingrid, What a beautiful and cute word picture of Emily feeling sorry for her mommy. It reminds me of my oldest son when he was a toddler if I cried he would bring me a Kleenex. It is amazing how such a small gesture can help you feel better. Hope your elbow is better.

  5. Lisa Green Kentala says:

    Will is a wonderful boy! I’m sure you know many children/teens avoid interaction with adults (especially elderly adults). I wonder if his home schooling stopped that “peer pressure” to exclude anyone outside one’s age group?
    I am thankful my 14 year old also enjoys the company of elderly people. He has visited nursing homes and loves talking with his 84 year old grandpa (The leader of his Scout troop is a 94 year old WWII vet and his hero.) This is rare among young people. I have no idea why my son is like this – but I’m glad! Some of his contempories barely grunt (and avoid eye contact) when I ask them a question!

  6. Ingrid Schlueter says:

    Cross-generational socialization is real life. American youth subculture, ingrained by entertainment media, marketing and our educational system wars against that.

    I’m not against schools, Will is now in high school with his peers, but I believe that children need at a young age to be exposed to people of all ages. Home education gives a much greater range of exposure to people. Tom took the kids to talk with a fighting ace from WWII at the EAA fly-in. Here was this fantastic pilot with so much history they could learn from. These are the interesting people — the ones who have LIVED and done fascinating and heroic things, the ones who have gone through hard times and good times and who have had so many interesting experiences. Pop culture, youth culture lies to the kids and says, only you matter. It locks them into a trap of fools who do nothing but drag them down into time wasting and nonsense. The world is an interesting place, and the ones who can tell you about it are the adults and the older people you encounter. Get this across to kids and you’ll give them a gift for life.

    (And of course, young people bring to older people the gift of their vibrant energy and fresh perspective. It’s a two way street and everyone benefits.)

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