Here are some comments I’ve heard from children lately:
“It’s her fault she got Covid. She took too long eating lunch without a mask.”
“Who cares if I get on a flight with Covid? I’m already sick.”
Such comments aren’t typically malicious, but they do show a failure to care about another person and to take their perspective — two key components of empathy.
That’s why, as a speech pathologist and a mom of two school-age kids, I believe it’s time to focus far more on empathy education, in our schools and our homes — especially with the omicron variant rising and so many more kids likely to be diagnosed as having Covid.
By now, kids are aware enough of the virus to know who’s sick and who’s not. There’s much blaming, shaming and superstition about it, in a way that can destroy relationships.
Showing empathy can be especially hard for kids, because their emotional understanding is still in development. Especially in times of stress and upset, they may retreat to focusing more on themselves — as do we adults.
Over winter break, many parents, grandparents and caregivers were around our kids a lot more. Now, as we return to work and manage new workloads, many of us are also managing grief or trauma and struggling to model empathy due to compassion fatigue.
But we have daily opportunities to help children develop empathy skills, based on the conversations we have with them. That starts with understanding what empathy truly is.
Empathy doesn’t develop all at once, and it doesn’t arise out of a vacuum. The skill develops in bumps and flashes, over time. Even many 1-year-olds are capable of noticing other people’s feelings, and many 2-year-olds are capable of taking basic actions to help others feel better.
We have daily opportunities to help develop children’s empathy skills, based on the conversations we have with them. That starts with understanding what empathy truly is.
As psychologists Paul Ekman and Daniel Goleman argue, empathy has three parts: cognitive empathy, or perspective-taking; emotional empathy, or deeply sharing another person’s pain or happiness, almost as if the emotions are our own; and compassionate empathy, or taking action as a result of such sharing.
Our conversations with children can help them develop each of these three elements.
For example, to foster cognitive empathy, or perspective-taking, encourage kids to shift between perspectives. If a teenager asks why he can’t travel when he tests positive for Covid and says “I don’t see the problem,” ask him to take the perspective of an older woman on a plane, sitting next to a teenager who knows he has Covid. At the time of the plane ride, nobody is the wiser; the woman doesn’t know, and the teenager doesn’t say anything. But the teenager knows that he may cause the woman to catch the virus and suffer in the weeks and months to come. You can then practice “flipping” perspectives, in this case taking the perspective of a pilot who has a family at home and needs to fly with many potentially infected people daily.
Quality conversations can also support children’s understanding of the emotional side of empathy. Say your middle-school child has a friend who was diagnosed with Covid and who needs to quarantine for 5 to 10 days at home. Even though the friend is asymptomatic and feels fine, she still must miss out on school and social events, and she may feel truly lonely and isolated.
Helping your child understand her friend’s feelings can support her in-the-moment interactions over the phone or computer, and also in her longer-term relationships.
Your conversations can also help your child develop compassionate empathy — feeling moved to do what’s helpful for the person in front of them. Of course, your child can’t visit her friend in person while she’s quarantining, but she can still try to ease her loneliness. Maybe they can play an online game together, or maybe your child can send a virtual card.
Most important is not to assume what others need and want in general, but to think about each person specifically. If your child isn’t sure, encourage him or her to ask.
At the same time, it’s tough to teach empathy when you’re struggling as a parent. In the act of teaching empathy to others, the most important element is compassion for yourself. At a time when we’re facing a long winter with Covid spikes and potential lockdowns, there’s no “perfect” parenting.
There never was. Recognizing that we’re all in this together is key. In the words of writer John Steinbeck, “You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.”
Rebecca Rolland is a speech pathologist and the author of “The Art of Talking with Children,” forthcoming in March from HarperOne. She serves as a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Harvard Medical School.
This story about empathy education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.