Six ways to help your child live with empathy and altruismWritten by John Trent
What's inside this article
Who doesn’t want their kid to show empathy and altruism to others instead of being a kid that believes “it’s all about me?” But can we teach our kids to live with empathy in a world where narcissism rules?
First, don’t believe the media hype that younger generations – millennials and Gen Z – are the most selfish generations ever. Clinical studies show that stereotype is false. Some of the most caring and committed people who want to make a difference in other’s lives are, in fact, those media-bashed millennials. But how do you transfer that desire to care for others to the precious child you’re raising?
Second, notice the two keywords in the title of this article: Empathy and altruism. Empathy is the feeling of compassion that we get when we see a person or animal hurting or mistreated. Altruism happens when we see that hurting person drop their books, and we bend down to help pick them up. We want our children to feel compassion and have the courage and willingness to step in and help others.
We are wired to show empathy
Neuroscientists have demonstrated that children are wired as young as eight months to respond to other children who are upset or crying. Your child already has some God-given abilities to see and want to soothe others. As parents, there are essential things that we need to do to develop empathy and altruism in our children. Our encouragement and direction can help our children choose to reach out and help others consistently.
In this article, we’ll look at six ways you can help your child strengthen their emotional muscles with both empathy and altruism. All six methods rely on your child having secure independence. This means that when your child sees someone hurting, because of the security they feel inside, they don’t get overwhelmed by the emotional display of another person.
Their attachment to you as a parent is the basis for this security. The more securely attached your child is to you, the easier it will be for them to have the confidence to explore their world and reach out to others – even those who are hurting. But your child also needs someone to model affection for them. While our kids are wired with the response to show empathy, that crucial connection point – where they reach out to meet the need – becomes more robust when they see empathy lived out in altruism.
So let’s jump into these six ways you can help your kids become independent enough to see and engage with what’s happening to others, all while stepping up to help!
1. Help your child understand his or her emotions first
How many times on a flight have you heard in the safety briefing, “Put on your oxygen mask first before putting on your child’s oxygen mask.” Advice like this can help you as your child learns empathy. You will want to teach your kids how to deal with their own emotions first. If they understand their own emotions, they can respond to the feelings of others as well.
Two different daughters
For example, my wife and I raised two very different daughters. Kari was very expressive in showing her emotions when she was young. We never had to wonder what she was feeling. If she was upset, we knew it. But sometimes that expressiveness crossed the line into tantrums or pouting. One thing, in particular, proved very helpful for Kari and us. We gave her ways to visualize the emotions she was feeling and showed her that she could come up with ways to deal with those emotions in healthy ways.
The microwave analogy
Kari was five years old and had just had a meltdown over a toy that was taken from her. When the emotion had died down, I took her into the kitchen.
“Kari, let’s do an experiment.” I had her get a clear glass mug from the cabinet and fill it with water. Then we put it into the microwave on high for four minutes. In a microwave, water will boil and bubble after about 2:30.
“See those bubbles? That means the water is boiling.” I went on to say, “Think about when you get upset. Sometimes, do you feel like your emotions start bubbling up and can spill out?”
She nodded her head.
“So, help me do something.” I had her to push the pause button on the microwave. Instantly, the bubbles stopped. I had her push start, and the bubbles started again. She hit the pause button a second time, and they stopped.
“Kari, let’s talk about how, when you feel all those emotions bubbling up inside, you can hit the pause button so that things don’t spill over.” This led to one of the most helpful pictures we kept going back to with her, time and again. It showed Kari how those emotional bubbles – frustration, anger, fear – could bubble up, but also how she had a choice to push the pause button and do something besides boiling over.
Putting a word to an emotion
Laura, our second child, had deep emotions as well, but we seldom heard them! She would internalize them, turn away, or want to be alone instead of sharing something she was feeling. So with Laura, we would encourage her to use words. We would ask her, “What is the word you are feeling right now?” If we stopped and listened, she would eventually put a word to the emotion she was feeling but was not naming or sharing. That led to her being able to talk about her emotions, not just ignore or swallow them.
Help your child understand their own emotions
Begin by helping your child deal with their emotions. As they begin to gain independence and realize they can deal with their fears or frustrations, it can help them see others’ emotions with more objectivity. They will begin to see the need behind the deed.
For example, let’s say your ten-year-old son has a friend named Bryan. His father is a soldier who has just deployed to Afghanistan. Bryan would understandably feel sad about his dad’s absence. That could be a time to talk to your child. Ask him, “What do you think Bryan is feeling right now? Why do you think he might be upset?”
Help your child to get in touch with his feelings as if he were in that same situation. It is a way that you can help him develop empathy for his friend. But we would also ask, “What do you think we could do to be of help to Bryan right now?” Encourage your eight-year-old to come up with several things he might be able to do to help his friend during those long deployment days.
2. Make your child a compassion hero in a book you read to them
When it comes to modelling compassion with both our girls, we did something we’d encourage you to do as well – to make your child a compassion hero! When Kari and Laura were around seven or eight years old, we’d all sit down at night and read C.S. Lewis’ tremendous children series, The Chronicles of Narnia.
In The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, readers meet a wonderful character named Lucy. She is empathetic and altruistic, loving, and kind. Only when we read the book with our girls, her name wasn’t “Lucy” anymore. It became “Kari” or “Laura.” With all apologies to C.S. Lewis, we changed the character’s name to our daughters’ names!
Every time Lucy appeared in the story, it was instead Kari who met Mr. Beaver and helped him. Or it was Laura who had such compassion for Mr. Tumnus when the witch turned him to stone. And it was Princess Kari and Princess Laura who became princesses of Narnia by being so caring and kind. Putting your child into a story where they are living out the traits of empathy and altruism can be a great way to model for them who they can become in real life!
3. Help your child understand what is real to someone else
I haven’t always been great at compassion and empathy. But I learned something important regarding empathy and altruism when I was a teenager. It’s similar to something every nurse learns in nursing school: “Pain is what the patient says it is.” If the patient says that their pain is real, it’s real to them – even if the nurse can’t find anything wrong. Here’s how keeping that in mind can help you teach and model empathy and altruism for your child.
A lesson from plays and playoffs
In my junior year in high school, our football team went to the divisional playoffs. We were favourites to win. I remember playing my heart out. However, our team lost in the last few seconds of the game. I didn’t take my helmet off after the game ended because I was crying. I didn’t want any of my friends to see me crying because it was so heartbreaking to me.
A few weeks after the game, I was backstage at the tryouts for the big school play for which a good friend was auditioning. He wasn’t a football player, but he was a great singer and loved drama. I was backstage to support him. But when he walked out on stage, he blew his audition. He did get a part in the play but failed to land the lead role that he had practiced so hard to get.
As he walked off-stage, I saw he had tears in his eyes just like I had when we lost the football game! To be honest, I didn’t think missing out on being the lead in a play was that big a deal. But the tears in my friend’s eyes taught me that the audition was like a playoff game that he too had lost. I shared that story with our daughters when they were young. It helped them understand that pain is different and real for each one of us.
Look for ways to help your child realize that while they might feel like losing a stuffed animal isn’t that big of a big deal – if it’s a big deal to their sister or friend, it’s real. And something they can recognize and lean into as well.
4. Encourage creativity in helping someone else
Something that helps children develop empathy and altruism for others is seeing other people doing something empathetic. It can be particularly helpful to see other children caring for others.
Easton LaChappelle was fourteen years old when he built a prototype for a robotic hand out of Legos and fishing wire for a science project. It was so good that it earned him third place at the 2011 Colorado State Science Fair. At that fair, he met a seven-year-old girl who had a prosthetic arm. Her prosthetic arm was state-of-the-art, but it also cost over $80,000! That’s way too expensive for the average person or family! That’s when Easton’s creativity kicked in. He decided to come up with a way to build a robotic arm that costs much less. He succeeded by using 3D printing to bring the production cost of a similar prosthetic arm down to just $350.
There are countless stories of children who have made a difference. For more examples, you can search Google and share those stories with your child. Take some time to talk about how creative that child was and encourage them to be creative in helping someone else as well. Ask, “What do you think we could do to help that person?” It’s a great way to encourage creativity and caring.
5. Help your kids realize their own hurts can become a platform for encouraging others
Shakespeare’s character Romeo says, “He jests at scars that never felt a wound.” It’s easy to look at a scar someone else carries and make fun of it. But we look at that same scar in a very different way if we too have been scarred. All children go through tough times or experiences. But those negative experiences we go through don’t have to defeat us. They can make us more alert, more aware, and even more ready to help others facing similar challenges.
Your child will fail to make the team, lose something important to them, or get sick and miss an important event. Be with them in their disappointment. After some time has passed, look for ways in which you and your child can talk about what they experienced. Discuss those scars they carry but have worked hard to overcome. For example, let’s say your family made a cross-country move right before junior high. There would have been lots of challenges during the first year as your family made the transition. But then someone shows up in high school who just moved from somewhere else and is struggling. Your child can use their own experience to reach out to the new kid at school and help them.
A close friend of ours died in a climbing accident about a year ago. He left behind a wife and twin boys. As the Lord would have it, a new teacher arrived at the twins’ school who had lost his father when he was their same age. The encouragement and bonding with that teacher proved incredibly helpful for our friend and her boys.
6. Having the courage to be compassionate
There are so many other ways we could talk about encouraging empathy and altruism. Clinical studies show how important they can be to children of all ages. Things like getting your child a pet to take care of, going on a missions trip, serving at a food kitchen, or visiting a nursing home can help teach our kids empathy. While I’m sure you saw this example coming, clinical studies show that perhaps the strongest predictor of empathetic and courageous behaviour is when individuals grow up in a family that prioritized compassion and caring for others. Here’s a fantastic example:
Pearl and Samuel Oliner did a landmark study on how children who had compassionate parents tended to also be more empathetic and altruistic. The people the Oliners chose to study were Germans who had helped rescue Jews during the Nazi Holocaust. These people decided to help others despite the considerable risk of losing their own lives.
Person after person shared that the strength they drew on was from memories of their parents choosing to be courageous and caring. They and their parents lived out verses like Isaiah 1:17: “Learn to do good, seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
The courage and compassion those Germans lived out is something that I pray we never have to face. But there will be courageous decisions that we can make every day. Those decisions can make a difference in how our children view others. Memories of what they saw us do to live out justice, mercy, empathy and altruism can impact them for the rest of their lives.
It is possible to teach our children how to show empathy and altruism, even in today’s world. We want our children to feel compassion and have the courage and willingness to step in and help others. If we are intentional as parents in demonstrating empathy and altruism, our children will notice and will learn from our example.
John Trent is a co-founder of Insights International, a ministry that helps couples, families and teams learn how to lead with their strengths.
© 2020 Focus on the Family and John Trent. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at FocusOnTheFamily.com.
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