What is empathy? Really.
It’s a deeper understanding.
More than just sympathy, which is feeling sorry for, empathy implies reflection, understanding and appropriate action. Here’s a story that paints a picture.
The young teacher was losing her patience. One toddler was determined to get what she wanted by removing it from another toddler's hands and it was happening over and over again. "No! You can't keep doing that," she said, exasperated.
I've been in that teacher's shoes thousands of times. I understand her frustration because I've felt that way myself.
I also get now what I didn’t quite comprehend when I was her age.
That we help ourselves out in the long run when we take the time to understand and address the real problem. The problem isn't that the child wants the toy. She wants it in order to learn more about it. She’s intrigued by it.
The real problem is that she doesn't know how to get it without infringing on the rights of the other child. But I didn't know how to stop toy snatching effectively, either. Until I heard another teacher say it. Over and over again.
"She's using that. You can ask for a turn or play with something else while you're waiting for it. I'll help you do either if you want."
The second teacher had more empathy. She understood that the child really wanted the toy and didn’t know how to get a turn. She understood her desire to learn about the toy. Then she taught her a way to do it without infringing on the rights of the other child. She offered support. I call this The New Empathy.
The New Empathy
The NewEmpathy is a deep understanding which produces the ability to keep another’s perspective in mind while going after what one wants without harming anyone else and the ability to work effectively with others to reach shared goals without giving up one's own. In short, non-violent communication plus action.
The story about the young teacher is a true one and it shows us one small point in teaching empathy, one “baby step” if you will. By understanding the child’s desire to learn, the second teacher was able to use words that made sense to the child.
Here’s another very, very important “baby step” that you can use today and every day to produce more empathy in young children. It’s easy, fun, and brilliant. It's called laptime.
Laptime is time spent reading or talking about emotions in close physical contact with your child. It's time spent together, looking at books or magazines, reading and speculating how characters, ourselves, or others in the world might feel.
It's also chatting about facial, body, and language expressions that help us know what others are experiencing outside of ourselves. It's based on this premise that all feelings are OK, all actions (and words) are not.
Laptime is a time for questioning and wondering about human interaction in the presence of a non-judgemental and trusted person. It's an awesome way to teach emotions to kids ages 0-8+. It's a time to be curious.
And it gives them information they'll need when it comes to talking about bullies. They'll eventually need to be able to "read" people well in the world they'll be growing up in.
Did you know that 30% of families in the United States don’t read to their kids at all?
That's a lot of missed opportunities to teach their children about emotions and empathy. No wonder full-grown people run around pummelling each other. Do people realize that lack of empathy leads to violence and crime? And that there's a connection between reading and emotional awareness and regulation.
I have a feeling that you are one of those concerned people who sees that connection so if you haven't done so already, I'm asking you to join us now in the quest for a more just and peaceful world through early childhood experiences. When you join, you'll immediately get my 22-page slideshow How To Get Kids To Listen Without Yelling Or Time-Outs.
Nanci J Bradley is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning, and most of all, PLAY! She studied early childhood ed at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human dev from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI and is the founder of early childhood rocks, a non-profit org dedicated to creating change through early childhood education.