Empathetic Parents Do This, And You Should Too

Want to play your part in saving our post-Covid world? Cultivate empathy in yourself, and in your children too. It’s all about saying “no” to the prevailing culture of self-promotion and self-interest, and going back to looking out for one another, so we can move forward together.

In Michele Borba’s best-selling parenting book UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed In Our All-About-Me World, she writes, “Empathy is what lays the foundation for helping children live one essential truth: We are all humans who share the same fears and concerns, and deserve to be treated with dignity.”

Need a slightly less altruistic reason for teaching your kids to be empathetic? Studies have shown that some of the most successful people — as defined by wealth, happiness, and professional influence — are “unselfish givers,” or those who give without expecting anything in return.

For those who have the time, Borba’s book is available at the National Library (or via Libby and Overdrive). In it, she lays out a roadmap of practical advice and strategies that parents can use at home to help kids develop empathy, which, she stresses, is not an inborn trait, but one that needs to be learned and practised.

Read on to find out how parents who prioritise empathy are raising their children differently.

Empathetic Parents Know That Feelings Are Not Problems To Be Fixed.

Why It Matters: Think about the last time you confided in someone. Did they hear you out and give you the space to express your feelings, or did they brush your feelings aside to share their own experiences and solutions? As adults, we’re prone to bringing a conversation back to ourselves, especially to highlight our triumphs in a similar situation. However, this leaves our listeners — including our children — feeling unheard and unfulfilled. Real empathy then, is about creating an environment at home where all feelings are given proper attention, and treated as valid.

Teach This At Home: In order for children to be “emotionally literate,” they must be able to identify their own emotions, as well as read the emotions of others. For those with a new baby in the family, this is an opportune moment to teach younger children about empathy — have them hold the baby and attempt to decipher the baby’s emotions based on observable cues, such as a baby’s cries or facial expressions. If your children have been clamouring for a pet, and you are agreeable, know that this can be a good way for them to learn about putting others’ needs first.

To encourage emotional literacy, look for teachable moments in daily life to use emotional vocabulary. For instance, if you see your child with clenched fists, you can ask, “Are you feeling anxious or angry? Your fists are clenched.”

Children often feed off their parents’ emotions as well. A child can sense your anger or frustration, which may or may not be directed at them. Do make it a point to explain your own emotions, such as, “I’m feeling frustrated because I’m trying to focus on a deadline” or “I feel annoyed because I’ve asked for this to be tidied up more than once.”

If expressing emotions doesn’t come naturally to your family, try this: use colour-coded fridge magnets to represent different emotions, such as green or yellow for happiness and red for sadness or anger. Every day, each member of the family can signal his or her predominant mood by choosing a coloured magnet to put up on the fridge, and this can provide a conversation starter for discussing one another’s emotions.

Empathetic Parents Teach Boys And Girls About Emotions.

Why It Matters: Mothers in particular tend to use more emotional words and content when talking to their daughters than to their sons. For instance, you might say to your daughter, “Grandma is sad that you haven’t called her this week, she misses you.”

With boys, the tendency is to encourage them to suppress their emotions, with advice such as “You shouldn’t cry over this, it’s such a small thing, and others might laugh at you.”

If girls are constantly made to feel it is their responsibility to be attuned to others’ emotions (read about mental load here), while boys learn that in order to be respected, they need to rein in their emotions, this leads to an imbalance that has unhealthy consequences for the future.

Teach This At Home: Emotions are for everyone — boys can cry or feel fear, and girls can get angry. Reflect on your own advice to your children to identify gender bias, and make efforts to adjust the feedback that you give to your children.

Empathetic Parents Focus On Their Children’s Morals (Over Skills, Talents & Grades).

Why It Matters: Are you proudest of your children when they bring home good grades, win a competition, or do something kind? When your children help others, is your first instinct to question if they are losing out or being used? Are you telling your children that what matters most in life is personal satisfaction, above all else? If we want to raise empathetic children, says Borba, we must first prioritise the quality of being prosocial — this needs to be a part of our identity.

Teach This At Home: Would you praise your child for his or her helpful actions, or for being a “helper?” It may seem like a minor distinction, but the consequences are significant. Research has shown that children are more likely to display helping behaviour when their character has been praised. One explanation is that when we realise our actions reflect our character, we are more inclined to make morally sound choices. Telling your child that he or she is a “thoughtful” or “kind person” is more effective than saying, “I like how you shared your marbles with your friend, good job!”

Apart from this, you should model the helping behaviour that you want your child to adopt, and give some thought to what your family’s core values are. Work together with your spouse to create a family mission statement, which represents the purpose and values of your family, and sets the tone for the choices you make, and the actions you take.

Empathetic Parents Avoid Overpraising Their Kids.

Why It Matters: Heaping undeserved praise on your children doesn’t equip them with better self-esteem; instead, all you’ll get is children with higher levels of narcissism. “Overvalued” children believe they are more special than others, and they go through life with a sense of entitlement that benefits no one but themselves. As they grow older, they bring this attitude along with them to their workplaces and adult relationships.

Teach This At Home: Watch out for any signs of entitlement that your child might be displaying, such as forgetting to acknowledge others’ contributions in team projects, being highly dependent on praise and approval, and criticising others to feel better.

If you spot these signs, assess how you praise your kids. Focus on praising effort. At the same time, be honest — don’t diminish poor results or try to sweep them away with insincere encouragement, such as “it doesn’t matter that you came last, you’re still the best!”

Praise your children for being helpers, for caring, sharing, and looking out for others. But be mindful of dishing out praise too easily — this devalues your praise and could result in decreased motivation on your child’s part to try something new, deal with failure, or work towards a challenging goal.

Empathetic Parents Discipline Their Children With Kindness.

Why It Matters: Parents are not perfect, but know that if you consistently discipline your kids with spanking, yelling, and shaming tactics, you are not teaching them to be more empathetic to others. One can’t change overnight, but this is worth reflecting upon, to see if there are viable alternatives.

Teach This At Home: Are your children displaying undesirable behaviours? Try the CARE approach:

  • Call attention to the “uncaring” act. Help your child understand how their words or actions have upset others, e.g. “Telling your best friend that his drawing was ugly made him feel sad.”
  • Assess why the uncaring act would hurt someone else. Help your child to put himself or herself in another’s shoes. (“How would you feel if someone told you that your drawing, which you spent hours working on, was ugly?”)
  • Repair the hurt. Ask your child what he or she can do to make amends.
  • Express your disappointment, and reiterate your expectations of your child. (“You are a kind person, and I expect you to consider your friends’ feelings when you talk to them.)

You can turn to parenting resources such as books and websites for more positive discipline methods. For additional support, ask your child’s school about the Positive Parenting Programme (known as Triple P), where you can be guided by professionals to better deal with your children’s behavioural issues.