Jane Brody’s column this week has a nice introduction to teaching empathy to children. One of the key points is that children are naturally predisposed to empathy— for example, newborns will cry when they hear other babies crying and toddlers will often spontaneously offer their blankets or other comfort items if they see that Mommy or Daddy looks upset.
But this natural inclination—just like children’s natural inclination to learn language—requires key environmental exposures in order to develop. The most important of these is nurturing, responsive parenting. Babies whose needs for touch, comfort and soothing are not met regularly by one or two primary caregivers will have difficulty developing empathy—just as babies who aren’t exposed to speech will not be able to learn to speak.
Empathy, then, develops from the experience of empathy—not from suffering. We tend to think of empathy as something that comes from “knowing what it’s like” to feel pain—but the origins of empathy are in shared nurture. People are most empathetic when they feel calm and safe: if your own needs aren’t being met, it’s hard to think of someone else’s. This is why it’s impossible to spoil an infant by responding to him or her—and why punishment doesn’t make bullies into nicer people.
If you want empathetic kids, the best thing to do is to be an empathetic person and show kids why kindness matters. Also show them that it feels good— people are often embarrassed about the pleasure of helping others, seeing it as unseemly or as some kind of stain that makes an altruistic act into a selfish one. Since everyone benefits from shared joy, this attitude isn’t helpful to increasing empathy.