Empathy, Bridge to a Bigger World
After watching the special report on starving children in Africa in the ‘80’s, our six year old daughter had many questions about why those children were always hungry. It was a perfect opportunity to help her bridge the only world she knew to understand that there are many ways people experience life.
Damien wanted to know if the African children with the big bellies got snacks, if they had gardens like ours, a refrigerator with juice and yogurt, if they had grocery stores and money to buy food. Children have a perspective that the world revolves around their needs. Growing emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually means that their “little world” reality must expand. This was an opportunity for Damien to become more empathic.
Empathy is the life extending ability to share in another’s thoughts and emotional feelings. Empathy stretches the imagination and one’s personal perspective. How estute of Einstein to state “imagination is more important than knowledge.”
To assist Damien in understanding more about hunger, I suggested she go without a snack one afternoon. By dinner she grumpily proclaimed, “I’m REALLY starving!”
At dinner she ate too fast to soothe the gnawing pit of her stomach. We discussed her experience. It boggled her imagination that the hungry ache she experienced was something the African children lived with every day, never getting a full feeling in their tummies. After dinner Damien sulked, lost in her process of grasping the reality of true hunger.
For Damien’s seventh birthday she announced that she wanted a party but didn’t want any gifts from friends. She requested they bring money that would have been spent on presents to send to hungry African children. We found an organization that provided two flocks of chickens for a village. We watched our daughter’s beautiful ability to empathize carry her across a bridge, connecting her to a bigger world. She understood what was underneath the surface of the big-bellied children.
Easy Exercises to Build Empathy Skills with Children:
- When walking or sitting outdoors, ask child to close eyes with you. Both imagine what it is like to be a flower you see, how it feels and looks inside. Share experiences. Do this with trees, animals, a clown, police officer, store clerk, a rock, and anything else you see.
- Ask your child how she thinks someone feels who is sick, and what the person might be thinking. Do this with a variety of circumstances – someone who wins a race, loses a pet, drops money in the store, gets caught in the rain, has a birthday party, gets in trouble with parents, etc.
- Encourage child to suggest fun things to you about what to imagine.
- Use the word, “empathy” and explain it means to imagine what someone else thinks and feels like.
Children who do not learn empathy remain self-centered, often manipulative, have more difficulty being a good listener and communicating with mutual respect. Diversity does not bring a sense of unity to them and they have difficulty with other emotions such as compassion. Their world is limited. On the other hand, children who learn empathy do not feel isolated and disconnected. They feel they are a part of the world and have more of a sense of adventure, curiosity, caring and compassion. They graduate themselves to greater circles of life. You can always see it in their eyes.