Mirror neurons in our brains encourage imitation and allow us to share experiences with others. The ability to understand how others feel and think makes it possible to form strong social bonds. Empathy is a complex evolutionary process that makes it possible for the human race to prosper.
Empathy is a combination of two specific responses. Affective empathy is the ability to share another’s emotions. Cognitive empathy lets you see things from another’s point-of-view. Help your children make the most of their natural empathic abilities.
Affective Empathy: Sharing Emotions
Teach young children how to respond appropriately to the emotions of others.
- Like most things, children learn best through observation. Your child will learn the rules of social empathy by watching how you relate to people in your everyday life. Pay attention to what you are showing them. Are there certain people you treat more politely or respectfully? When you see someone hurt or suffering, how do you respond? Talk with older children about how you choose your actions.
- Encourage active listening. Young children with short attention spans can easily miss nonverbal cues like body language and facial expressions. Active listening allows them to slow down and concentrate so they can absorb more information. Fun games with animal sounds, musical instruments, and pictures can teach children how to focus during a conversation.
Cognitive Empathy: Changing Perspective
Demonstrate the subjective nature of perspective to help them see through the eyes of their peers and relatives.
- Use story time to talk about perspective. In most stories, the writer naturally leads us to sympathize with the hero. Talk to your child about how the story might be different through the villain’s eyes. What drove the Big Bad Wolf to devour Red Riding Hood’s grandma? Was Cinderella’s stepmother really evil, or just a little too strict? Older children can rewrite their favorite fairy tale from the perspective of a minor character.
- Encourage children to understand their own feelings. Big emotions can be scary and confusing, even for older kids. Teach young ones how to recognize and respond to their own feelings. Emotional self-regulation gives children valuable reference points that allow them to respond appropriately to the needs of others.
Kindness: Mutually Beneficial Responses
Kindness is a celebrated virtue in nearly every human culture. Being nice to each other isn’t just the easiest way to live in an interconnected world. A sense of kindness encourages individuals to act in the best interest of others. This ensures that the whole community can thrive. Kindness is empathy in action.
- Make kindness a family priority. Volunteer as a family at your favorite community organization. Let children know that polite and respectful interactions are expected in all situations. Praise your child when they perform a spontaneous act of kindness. Above all, treat your child with kindness.
Empathy and kindness are tools your child can use to create a social network that helps them achieve their highest potential. Your child will benefit from your guidance throughout their life.
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