The 20-month old who instinctively turned around to hug the little boy crying as she was leaving daycare. The five-year-old who took a piece of broken balloon out of a toddler’s mouth “to keep her safe.” The second grader who told his new class intern, who was deliberating on how stiffly she should grade her first papers, that she “would get it with practice.” The third grader who scrambled to find his sister in the bus line. What is the common element in these scenarios? Empathy!
The first grader who barges through a meandering kindergartener after throwing his garbage out on his way to lunch dismissal. The fourth grader who barges through a first grader while is at the garbage can disposing of his trash, knocking the first grader’s tray and its contents on the floor, and not offering to help pick it up. The student who runs into class roaring like an airplane, constantly calling out or migrating to other students during lessons. What is the common element in these scenarios? No empathy!
If all students had empathy, that would be one element of confidence building already accomplished. Knowing you are doing well by others is a great feeling for a child. And being done well by creates a sense of self-worth.
So when is it that we teach empathy to our children? How do we do it? We teach it by simple things like modeling courteous driving, waiting in line to pay for goods, calling people by their name, saying please and thank you, hugging your child when they are distressed, displaying your concern for health and safety. These are all things that occur before children start school.
Talk about what you are doing as it occurs. When some other driver is weaving across lanes in front of you, let your children know that is unsafe. Teach them what a stop sign is and how to cross the street. When your child is begging to go home while you are waiting in line a store, explain that there are people in front and that you need to wait your turn. Call all people you come in contact with by their name and/or title (i.e. Father John, Mr. Smith, Mrs. Jones, Grandma, Kathy or Steven). Say please while asking your child to bring you something and thank you once you have received it. Hug your child when they are happy, sad, confused, hurt or angry and talk their feelings out. Keep routines like consistent meal times, time for homework, bath time and bedtime. Always pick your child up from school or aftercare at a regular time. A child who knows the rules of society, eats well, and has clean, fitting clothes will feel confident to go out in the world.
So I ask again when is the best time to teach empathy? Before school, of course! Teachers do not have time to teach patience. They do not have time to break up fights. They do not have time to teach social etiquette. They do have time to reinforce good behavior and the procedures they need each student to perform for a safe and productive day.
The rest is up to you, parents! You can do it! An empathetic child is a respectful child. A world of respectful children grows into a world of respectful adults. What a nice planet this would be – no road rage, no senseless shootings and no reason to fight. Ah, PEACE at last!!