The Key to Empathy in Children
In today’s world, there is an overgrowing focus on “me” and less on “us.” This “all-about-me” emphasis has led to a lack of empathy, which, in turn, results in more and more conflict. The primary reason for this…people do not listen. Their focus is on their own agenda, and they are not open to really listening to others’ thoughts and feelings. And while we have personal rights, we also have a moral responsibility to be kind humans. Early on, teaching children the importance of empathic listening is an invaluable life skill that can change human interactions positively.
Listening with the Intent to Reply
Communication is an essential skill to have, and while children are taught to talk and write, listening is only addressed to get children to follow directions. When we talk to others, our biggest need is to feel understood. The problem is that most people only listen with the intent to reply. They have essentially already made up their mind about what we mean and are, therefore, only waiting to make their point. This leads to misunderstandings and conflicts. To be an effective listener, we must be willing to listen beyond the words. As Sean Covey stated in “The 7 Habits of Happy Kids,” “…less than 10 percent of communication is contained in the words we use.”
Cultivating Emotional Knowledge & Awareness
To help our children with this, we must begin by cultivating their emotional knowledge. Typically, parents start doing this with their younger children by naming strong emotions that the children express. This increases their emotional vocabulary. Parents can then expand on this when situations arise. For example, when a child is watching a TV show, parents can start a conversation by asking their children what they thought the characters were feeling and how they were communicating. As children get older, the conversations can take on a deeper level of empathy. When we teach children to listen through the words someone is saying and pick up on the tone of voice and body language, they begin to build more emotional awareness.
Modeling Role Models
As with anything, a large part of children developing this skill is through observing role models. When interacting with children, it is important that adults understand how a child feels about a situation by asking questions and watching body language. By treating children this way, they will learn, firsthand, a deeper and more meaningful way of interacting with others. They will then show the same respect and empathy for the people they interact with. It is important to keep in mind, however, that children will make mistakes and be unkind sometimes. This is when we need to give them a second chance to try again without making them feel embarrassed. Use these times as further learning opportunities.
Early and Often
We all want to be understood. By teaching empathic listening to children early on and exercising it often, we can strengthen our communication skills and build trust with each other. Respecting each other enough to truly listen to someone else’s perspective instead of from our frame of reference will go a long way in creating more meaningful interactions. As Mike Greene said, “The ability to hear is a gift. The willingness to listen is a choice.”
Written by Jennifer Salama, SKILLZ Content Creator with a Masters Degree in Child Psychology