Thinking about Empathy

After the Sandy Hook shooting last month, I sat down with my oldest son (he turned 7 on Christmas Eve) to talk to him about the shooting because I didn’t want him to hear about it first from other kids at school. I was still reeling from the news, from the heart-breaking reflection that all those children were the same age as this beloved child in front of me. I couldn’t stop thinking about those parents whose grief I couldn’t fully know, but could imagine with painful clarity.
I realized, as our discussion ended, that I might have frightened my son, so I added, “This kind of thing is really unlikely to happen here,” and reminded him (and me!) of statistics that suggest that school is still a safe place for children.

My son’s response shocked me a little. “That’s okay, mom. If someone comes to my school I’ll just run away really fast, so maybe he’ll get the other kids but not me.”

I felt like he’d missed something critical in our discussion, but I wasn’t sure what, so beyond a reminder that we don’t want anyone to get shot, I let him go. In the weeks since, I’ve realized that his response bothers me because it betrays a lack of empathy.

I’m not blaming my son for that–he’s still a child, and his perspective is still very much a self-oriented one. (According to one online dictionary, empathy is “identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.”)  But it’s got me thinking about my own culpability as a parent. There are lots of things I hope I can teach my children: grit, determination, honesty, compassion, hard work. Empathy is at the top of that list.

Empathy is at the heart of some of our key religious beliefs. In Mosiah 18:9, part of our baptismal covenant includes the injunction to “mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort,” both actions that require at least some degree of empathy. Learning empathy and charity go hand in hand–we find our way into charity out of empathy, and the practice of charity can sometimes help us learn empathy.

We also believe in an empathic God–a God who weeps for us and with us (see Moses 7:28).

But empathy is a tricky thing to learn and just as tricky to teach. Like many virtues, I think parents teach it best by practice–but empathy isn’t an easy thing for me to show my children (or even, sometimes, to practice). I can tell them how I feel–but, as a fledgling writer I’ve been learning that telling someone an emotion does not equate to them feeling the same thing.

File:Girls carrying water in India.jpg

Girls Carrying Water in India, photo by Tom Maisey, Wikimedia Commons

Roman Krznaric offers six habits of empathic people that we can develop, including cultivating curiosity about others, learning to listen, and trying someone else’s lifestyle. He argues that not only does empathy expand our moral compass, but it actually helps us live happier lives. I imagine it would be possible to extend these habits to our children, encouraging them to learn about other people and perspectives and helping them imagine the inner lives of others.

Outside of painful personal experiences, my most direct encounters with empathy have come from reading widely, from following another author into the mind of someone unlike myself. Recently, I read R. J. Palacio’s Wonder, a story of a boy with severe cranio-facial deformities and the way his life and the lives of those around him are transformed by kindness–and empathy. I hope that books like this will help me teach my son empathy as he gets a little older.

Really, though, I wanted to turn to the collective wisdom of the Segullah mind: what experiences have helped you teach your children empathy? What books do you encourage your children to read to expand their ability to imagine the lives of people different from them?

About Rosalyn

(Prose Board) currently lives in Southern Utah with her husband and three small children, where she teaches writing part-time at the local university. She has a BA in English from BYU, and an MA and PhD (also in English) from Penn State. She served a mission in the Hungary Budapest mission. In her spare time (what's that?) she likes to read, write, try new recipes (as long as she doesn't have to clean up), watch movies with her husband (British period drama is her favorite), go for walks, and generally avoid anything that resembles housework.

11 thoughts on “Thinking about Empathy

  1. I think empathy is similar to any other virtue…it takes lots of time and struggles to learn. However often girls are a bit quicker to learn it than boys. I see this in my girl/boy grand twins. They are only 3 1/2 but she is right there on the spot comforting anyone around her who is hurting. He on the other hand acts like he doesn’t notice.

    Example is still the greatest teacher of all. Lots of opportunity for service. Service can be hard work but it forces us to get out of ourselves and focus on others. There is no way empathy is not going to be learned from that.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts here and for the link to the six habits. It’s definitely something I want for my kids as well and this gives some great ideas on how to approach it.

  3. When we watch movies together we always talk about how the characters feel and why they feel that way. Cartoons aimed at children sometimes make it easier for the child to see what a person is feeling by the expressions on their faces.

    I also agree that girls are more sensitive to it earlier than boys.

  4. Curiously enough, I see some empathy in this story: your son may have been trying to soothe your fears about his safety.

  5. @Grandma Honey and Jennifer–thanks for sharing your ideas! I need to spend more time discussing movies with my kids.

    @RMM–I hadn’t thought of that possibility, thanks for mentioning it! He’s a funny kid: sometimes he’s very perceptive, sometimes he doesn’t notice things even when they hit him in the face (literally).

  6. My son is far more sensitive than my daughter is, so I don’t know that it’s a straight gender line. Unfortunately, boys are also expected to be tough, so he may hesitate before offering someone a hand. My daughter and I have had many discussions on empathy — she is well-liked among her peers and rarely gets left out — so she doesn’t see it as someone who needs empathy; I am trying to get her to understand she is the one who needs to offer.

  7. “That’s okay, mom. If someone comes to my school I’ll just run away really fast, so maybe he’ll get the other kids but not me.”

    Definitely, it sounds like he is trying to make you feel better. Empathy in spades. Because even if you’d be sad if other kids got shot, your kid knows that you would be so relieved and grateful in that situation to find out that he had survived.

    I personally have my own thoughts and feelings about the overdramatized school shooting. It is not like there weren’t so many other people who died on that same day. Selective empathy is a pet peeve of mine, maybe. I suppose it is natural to be more affected if it is your community or people you know, or somehow identify with. However, there are so many people dying who are of an “other” group….another race, another socioeconomic status, another country, another language, another culture.

  8. These are only musings in my mind – I’m definitely not saying they’re right. I think perhaps compassion can be taught, per se, but I’m not quite convinced empathy can. I think its born from common suffering, i.e. we have feelings of compassion for the suffering Sandy Hook families, but can we have true empathy without experiencing the loss of a close loved one?
    Several years ago I was in the hospital as a patient recovering from a second surgery to repair a shattered femur. A friend was visiting in my hospital room, when in the distance I heard the faint sound of someone crying. She couldn’t hear it, but I couldn’t focus on our conversation. Someone was hurting and I couldn’t bear it – I believe because of the pain and suffering I was experiencing. I made my friend go out into the corridor with instructions to find who was crying and bring them to me. She thought I had lost my mind, but did as I asked and brought back a woman whose fiancee was being life flighted to Salt Lake with a heart attack. I couldn’t walk but pulled her into my arms to comfort her. I couldn’t help myself.

    So perhaps empathy only comes from personal suffering? I don’t know. I only know how difficult it still is for me to see people hurting.

  9. understanding the natural growth of the human brain would help explain the answer of this delightfully normal little boy. He has about a year before his brain is developed enough to process intangible concepts. The age of eight is the age of accoutability for a reason.

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