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Among the traits that we appreciate most in others, kindness, grace and empathy must surely be among the most important.
These traits are the strengths that we draw upon to show solidarity to those who have fallen on hard times, and to lend a helping hand to those in need. In a society that increasingly focuses on the self, a child who is empathetic has a higher chance at personal, relationship and work success.
The ability to empathise can be attributed to what’s called our “mirror neurons”. As explained by neuroscientist VS Ramachandran in Greater Good1, these cells effectively replicate in our own brains what we see others experiencing – so if we see someone fall, the mirror neurons in our brains react as though we ourselves have fallen down, allowing us to briefly absorb the pain and feel for the person.
Although the existence of these neurons may indicate that the ability to feel empathy is innate, it doesn’t mean that empathy doesn’t need to be cultivated. Conscious effort needs to be made to nurture empathy, particularly in children.
Keep it practical
Like many other skills, empathy is often best learned in actual practice – you can begin simply by encouraging your child to play and interact with children from different walks of life. Norshirin Hamzah, a local pre-school teacher who recently became a stay-at-home mother, agrees.
“In play, situations will invariably arise that introduce the need for empathy. Allow your child to handle the situation, and afterwards discuss the interaction with them and gently guide them in ways that they can improve. Afterwards, reward good behaviour with little treats to encourage them to continue,” she says.
One of the fundamental requirements of empathy is recognising that regardless of superficial differences, everyone is essentially going through the same struggle. By teaching your child to embrace the different experiences people go through, your child will develop the ability to connect with people from around the world in a way that few languages can.
Go on a journey in someone else’s shoes
Another way to achieve this is to develop a useful habit – reading! Literary fiction, in particular, has been proven to make people more empathetic and understanding. It allows your child to step into another person’s shoes and go on a journey with them.
As said best by Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Atticus led by example, so the last tip for cultivating empathy in your child can be summed up in three simple words: practise it yourself. Children mimic their parents so when you show empathy to others, your child will invariably do the same.
1Greater Good is a website that uses science-based practices to promote a meaningful life.