Teaching our children about empathy

Published 8:26 am Tuesday, January 4, 2011

By JANEY PATTY/Guest Columnist

I believe that one of the most important character traits that can be instilled in children is the ability to have empathy for others.

According to Erick Erickson’s psychosocial development theory, school-aged children are focused on efforts to attain competence in meeting challenges presented by parents, peers, and school.

During these years, children become more focused on making and keeping friends. I believe that the school and the family can help children develop the skills needed to have caring, lasting relationships with others. One of the primary characteristics needed, in my opinion, is empathy: putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Students at Valley Intermediate School participate in a guidance lesson about empathy during their first semester. Besides just learning what empathy means, we focus on truly instilling this quality in our students.

Students also participate in an activity that helps them actually see the effects of unkind words on others. They learn that cruel words cannot be unsaid, and someone is never the same after being treated badly by others.

Teachers reinforce the importance of empathy almost on a daily basis when they deal with conflicts within the classroom. Learning how someone else must feel in any given situation helps our children learn how to more easily resolve interpersonal problems.

Parents can help children develop empathy in a variety of ways.

Simply asking your child, “How do you think he feels when you say or do that?” can have an impact if it is done gently and consistently when a child is unkind to someone – or if your child is exceptionally kind to someone!

If your child is allowed to help care for the family pet, she can learn about kindness. Asking your child to participate in a service project for those less fortunate can help him learn how to feel compassion toward others. I believe that educators and parents should work together to help our children become the most compassionate people they can be. This, of course, can be done best by being empathetic people ourselves!

Janey Patty is a counselor at Valley Intermediate School.