If a baby bites you, bite him back.
-My grandmother, teaching me about empathy.
Are you worried that your children aren’t empathetic? You’re not alone. In recent years, whole industry has popped up around the idea that we need to be teaching children empathy.
As a teacher, we were taught to give children plenty of exercises like “Imagine you are Anne Frank stuck in Nazi Germany, write a 2 page letter to a friend explaining your feelings.” My favorite were the ones that involved slavery. I’d stand up in front of a group of 8-year-old’s and try to get them to understand what it was like to be a part of chattel slavery. Most of the girls sat there looking sad, most of the boys responded with “WHAT?!?! I woulda…. (insert some action that they are physically incapable of and which involves weapons that didn’t exist in the 17 and 1800’s).”
As parents, we see our kids laughing at a child in a wheelchair and we say, “How would you feel if you couldn’t walk?” When they don’t eat their vegetables, we say “You know, some kids don’t have enough food to eat, you should be grateful.” Has any kid ever rushed to eat his broccoli after hearing that children in Africa don’t have food?
This is why you should stop right now if you think you’re going to teach your children empathy. You’re not. You’re probably just confusing them. You may be teaching them to have sympathy, you may be teaching them to have pity, and worst of all, you may be teaching them to simply be condescending.
Let’s take a look at empathy to better understand why we shouldn’t teach it. Here’s a full google overview with a historical look at the word usage.
Please note, empathy didn’t exist in the 1800’s.That right there proves that it’s just some new fangled mumbo-jumbo, but stick with me and I’ll further explain why you should leave it alone as a parent.
Most people look at this definition of empathy and think, yes! I want my kids to be able to understand and share the feelings of others! How could I not care if my children aren’t empathetic.
Most people look at this definition of empathy and think, yes! I want my kids to be able to understand and share the feelings of others! How could I not care if my children aren’t empathetic?
Wikipedia defines empathy as: the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other being’s frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.
To fully understand why your kids are not empathetic, re-read that highlighted part. Real empathy doesn’t come from playing with empathy beads, reading stories about the Holocaust, or even from hearing adults talk about impoverished children in distant countries. Real empathy comes from growing up, living life, and feeling what life feels like. Real empathy is an extremely difficult emotion to develop because it involves living through a vast swath of experiences.
A woman without kids can’t have empathy for a woman who is in labor. A man who is blind can’t have empathy for a man with one leg. That’s not how empathy works.
Like most subjects these days, when we try to teach our children to be empathetic, we are trying to rush a natural process. In doing so, we often create more problems. We’re not teaching our children real empathy, but we are teaching them something.
IMO, there’s three basic things we are teaching children when we try to force empathy. I call this:
The Fake Empathy Trifecta
1) Confusion. This outcome seems to be the most difficult for parents to accept. You’ve told your child over and over again that she should consider the feelings of others and yet she still punches her brother and bites his food when you’re not looking. Why? Because she has no idea what you’re talking about. Ironically, provoking her brother (and you) gives her a great opportunity to explore everyone’s feelings.
Your daughter can’t fully understand her own emotions much less those of her brother. Address the specific action and don’t expect her to have a full understanding of her behavior. Then set up an appropriate consequence for the action.
What to do instead? Say, “Don’t hit your brother.” Or, if you’re my grandmother, hit her.
Selfishness, meanness, and aggression are all natural parts of being a child. In time, your daughter will simply grow out of most of the behaviors more or less. Having extended conversations about them only draws more attention to them. I don’t personally believe that it will increase the behavior, but in my experience, it’s an unnecessary use of energy and an unnecessary point of stress.
2) Pity. You tell your child to stop teasing the girl in the wheelchair and imagine that she’s that girl in the wheelchair and she immediately looks sad. You’re excited because you can’t believe it worked and you’re even more excited when she makes a card for the girl saying she’s so sorry that she’s in the wheelchair and won’t be mean to her again. Great right? You can even post it on Facebook and get a viral video about how your child did something great for her disabled classmate. Not so fast. Your daughter isn’t in a wheelchair and still has no real connection to the feelings of the girl in the wheelchair. Instead, she only pities her.
What to do instead? First, again, address the specific issue and say “Don’t tease people.” Then set up an appropriate consequence for the action.
Secondly, avoid projecting your issues onto your children. Often, teaching empathy fails because we are trying to make our children empathetic about something that we ourselves don’t understand. (And you can’t empathize with what you don’t understand.) We pity the girl in the wheelchair, so we feel extra bad that our daughter is teasing her. Make the issue about your daughter’s behavior and not the other child’s condition.
If she does stop teasing the girl, don’t reward her physically or emotionally. Don’t ever praise her for being nice to people simply because they are different. If your daughter has actually experienced teasing, you remind her to think about how that felt.
A friend of mine recently posted this picture on Facebook. It seems like a pretty benign picture, but her caption really illustrated one of the harms of trying to teach your kid empathy.
Her caption read in part:
Sammy and a friend, chillaxing after school. What’s cool is that the school didn’t call the nondisabled child a hero for playing with Sammy. No one came to me saying their faith was restored in humanity because someone played with my child.
In today’s world, there’s a lot of fear around children being unkind. We fear that we have to intervene with our kids in order to make sure that they’re always nice and always empathetic. But what are we saying when we congratulate our kids for being “empathetic” to a child that is different?
3) Being condescending. You are teaching your daughter about slavery and ask her to imagine she was a slave. Instead of actually imagining it accurately (which is likely impossible), she responds with all of the things that she would do in order to free herself. She’d whip out her A-K 47 and shoot up the whole plantation and then run away to the north. (Real plan from a real kid I taught.) No matter how much you explain to her that that isn’t possible, she simply can’t believe it. She’s convinced that the slaves just weren’t trying hard enough to get free (real theory from real historians).
What to do instead? Just leave it alone. Unless you’re just hoping your child will come up with a completely inaccurate yet possibly amusing story, don’t ask her to try to imagine what it’s like to be someone else. Just let her live her life and learn as she goes. She’ll have plenty of pain, heartache, and trials of her own to learn from. Just give her time.
This kind of fake empathy is pervasive. We’re taught that we have to have an opinion on everything and so we do. When we read a story about an event and immediately say “If that were me, I would have…” Really, unless you’ve actually experienced the exact situation as the exact person, you have no idea what you would do.
In short, your kids aren’t empathetic because they can’t be. Empathy is a very complicated emotion and most adults don’t have the lived experience to be truly empathetic in most situations. Stop googling “books to read your child to help with empathy”, stop planning “diverse” play dates, and stop asking your children to consider things that they actually aren’t capable of considering. Just let them grow up.
To me, it’s probably better for parents to simply forget the word empathy and instead just go back to the 1800’s style parenting and say “Stop it.” when your kids are doing things that you know they shouldn’t be doing.