A Few Words on Empathy
If nurturing means watering the plants you want to grow, what is at the root of those plants?
Okay, I’ll tell you. It’s empathy.
In our Nurturing Parenting programs, empathy is the cornerstone, the trigger, the fuel, the baking mix. See? I could have used a lot of different metaphors. But the root sounds good so we’ll go with it.
What is empathy?
It sounds like “sympathy,” but should not be confused with it. Sympathy is the act of feeling sorry for someone. Empathy is the act of feeling what that someone is feeling.
It’s walking in their shoes.
Even if we can’t understand another person’s exact experience (and we probably can’t, most of the time), we can understand the feeling they have. Maybe we have been through something, good, bad, or more complicated, that put us in the same state. And the ability to go there with someone else is empathy.
Empathy is learned.
Some things are determined by our genetics and our family history. Things like whether you will cheer for the Beavers or the Ducks. Empathy is a skill that must be learned. It gets stronger with practice, and more powerful with intention.
This is not to say that we start out with nothing to work with. When a baby sees and hears another baby crying, they will begin to cry too. Is this empathy?
In any case, it can certainly be unlearned. And that’s where Nature passes the ball to Nurture.
So how do we learn it? And how do we teach it?
Like a lot of learned behaviors and skills, we pick it up from the people around us. Or, and this is important, not. As children, we need to see it modeled by other people, particularly adults.
As adults, we can give kids opportunities to act with empathy. We can discuss with them what another person must be feeling. This person can be real or fictional (how does Sleeping Beauty feel when she pricks herself on the spindle? How does Maleficent feel when she is excluded from the birth celebration?).
More importantly, we can approach them empathetically. We do this by helping them to identify their feelings (“Your words sound angry.” “You must be very disappointed.” “That’s scary.”). And, — and I like how the Nurturing Parenting curriculum puts it — to honor those feelings.
When children know that what they are feeling is acceptable, and normal (even if they don’t know why), it helps them to respond empathetically to others.
Telling this to ourselves doesn’t hurt, either.