Empathy has been described as being at the heart of what it means to be human. It is the capacity to imagine what another person is feeling without feeling it yourself as well as the capacity to reflect the feeling of the other person back to him or her. Empathy is an important life skill. This podcast contains some specific ways parents can support youngster’s continuous development of increasing depth of empathy.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello, and welcome to the parents as learning coaches edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. Parents and caregivers play many different roles, at times, even somewhat conflicting roles as they support children’s development. The pandemic has shown a light on the importance of parents supporting learners. In this podcast, I’ll look to share my experiences as a teacher, educator, parent, grandparent, and continuous learner that can support your coaching efforts.
Steve: 00:34 Parents cultivating empathy. A Harvard graduate school of education post on cultivating empathy opens with this statement: “empathy is at the heart of what it means to be human. It’s a foundation for acting ethically, for good relationships of many kind, for loving well and for professional success. And it’s key to preventing bullying and many other forms of cruelty.” The link to this post and all the other resources mentioned are in the lead-in to this podcast. Nursing scholar, Therea Wisemann, defines empathy as the capacity to imagine what another person is feeling without feeling it yourself. Although what we imagine can never be exactly what the other person feels, we try to get as close to it as possible. Empathy also includes the capacity to reflect the feeling of the other person that you’re dealing with back the other person.
Steve: 01:47 To be able to see the world as others see it requires putting our own stuff aside and to see the situation through the eyes of another person. Wisemann goes on to identify four attributes of empathy. She lists enough effective dimension, and this describes the capacity to share the feelings of others. She describes a moral dimension, which is the motivation to seek good for others. She lists a cognitive dimension, which is the capacity to identify and understand the emotion of others. And then lastly, a behavioral dimension, which describes the capacity to convey our understanding of the other person’s emotions to the other person. In an earlier podcast interview with Tom Hoerr, the author of, “The Formative Five: Fostering Grit, Empathy, and Other Success Skills Every Student Needs,” Tom describes some steps to working with empathy that for me, really aligned with those Wisemann’s attributes that I just shared. Tom’s steps were listening, understanding, and action. Listen in as Tom explains those steps.
Steve: 03:19 So Tom, you listed some steps to developing empathy. And the first two were were listening and understanding. And I’m wondering if you can kind of label that for us and then how do I, as a parent begin to assist my child in developing that listening and understanding piece?
Tom : 03:45 I think with all of these success skills, actually with all of education, you know, it begins with intentionality. It begins with
saying, this is what’s important. And in my book, The Formative Five, I talk about beginning with vocabulary. So to me, empathy is a word that we should talk about. It should be known by children, whether they’re five years old or 15 years old. And I think we, wether we’re the parents at breakfast or the dinner table, or wether we’re the educator, we need to consciously seek out opportunities to understand how other people see the world differently. This has probably always been a problem, but I think it was more so today because it’s a whole lot easier for us to stay in our cocoon. I’m old enough when there were only a few network television stations years ago, and everybody watched, you know, ABC, NBC or CBS.
Tom: 04:36 Well, now there’s, what, 50 channels, a hundred channels who knows. And so politically you can turn on the channel that supports your beliefs, and you can watch that all the time and you never really understand that there’s another way to look at things that people are seeing things differently. Similarly, it’s possible to only talk to the people that are going to support your beliefs. They’re going to say what you want to say. And when we do that, I think we miss an opportunity. So as parents or as educators, we have, I think, a responsibility to help people, help kids see that it’s a complex world and begin to see that people see things differently, logically, not because they’re wrong, but because they’re in a different situation. And we all gain when we make a point of understanding how other people view the world and how they feel.
Steve: 05:25 Tom as I’m listening, I’m sensing a – it’s a need to stretch outside of myself to look at it differently. How do I, as a parent, explain that with with kids?
Tom : 05:41 One of the terms I talked about, vocabulary, a moment ago, one of the terms that I haven’t mentioned, that I think everybody should
be talking about is comfort zone. We can establish comfort zone with our kids, help them understand what that is and why it’s easy by definition. Our comfort zone is where you’re being reinforced. Your values are always around you, it’s easy. But then I would say, let’s talk about what’s different. In most communities, for example, if you get in a car and drive 10 minutes in one direction, you’re going to see a different kind of neighborhood. And it may be a neighbor that has more poverty. It may be a neighborhood that has more opulence, but then looking at that even while you’re driving and say, how do you think we might see the world differently if we grew up here, what would that look like?
Tom : 06:27 There’s also an amazing book called “Material World”, by Peter Menzel. And it’s a book that I think would be great to have in every home and certainly in every school library. And in Material World, what they do is they look at 30 cultures around the world and when you open the book, there’s a photo of a family from their culture. And they’re standing with all of their worldly possessions. So here’s a family in Los Angeles and they’ve got three TVs and two cars and all these clothes. And then you turn the page and here’s a nomadic family living in the middle of a desert with very few things. And not only is the photo there, but there’s texts that goes in and explains what the living conditions are like, what the climate is like and so forth and so on.And I think it’s a great resource, whether you’re growing up in Vermont, Utah, London or Tunisia to see the world around you and begin speculating. How would we live differently if we were in the middle of a desert, or if we were in Los Angeles, how would we see things?
Tom : 07:30 And again, that’s that intellectual, that’s the cognitive empathy. The first step about what trying to talk to earlier. Once that’s established, then you can begin to really talk about how people might feel. If you’re a teacher, great window there is using novels, using history. We’re really good as educators about teaching kids what happened and when it happened. We’re less good about teaching them why it happened. What were the underlying assumptions? Looking at slavery, we all know that economically there was an advantage to people to have other folks who were their.
Tom: 08:04 Now, if you do that, and here here’s the worry Steve, people need to know that if they do this the right way, if cognitively kids understand emotionally, they understand, they’re going to want to get to that last step of actionable. If they’re going to want to make a difference. It’s hard to really, appreciate how people feel, see the different situations and not then say I need to get involved. And I would argue, that’s good. To me, that’s a success, but you just need to be aware of that that’s where you’re headed.
Steve: 08:46 The Harvard post that I mentioned earlier on cultivating empathy provides five tips for parents. Number one, empathize with your child and model empathy for others. Children learn empathy, both from watching us and from experiencing our empathy for them. Two, make caring for others, a priority and set a high ethical expectation. If children are to value others’ perspectives and show compassion for them, it’s very important that they hear from their parents that caring about others is a top priority and that it can be just as important as their own happiness. Three, provide opportunities for children to practice empathy. You see children are born with the capacity for empathy, but it needs to be nurtured throughout our lives. Learning empathy is in some respects, like learning a language or a sport. It requires practice and guidance. Number four is to expand your child’s circle of concern.
Steve: 10:05 As parents and caretakers, it’s not only important that we model appreciation for many types of people, it’s important that we guide children in understanding and caring for kinds of people who are different from them and who may be facing challenges very different from their own challenges. Lastly, number five, help children develop self-control and manage feelings effectively. Often when children don’t express empathy, it’s not as they don’t have it, it can be because some feeling or image is blocking their empathy. Often, the ability to care for others is overwhelmed for example, by anger, shame, envy, or other negative feelings. Helping children manage these negative feelings, as well as stereotypes and prejudices about others is often what releases their empathy. Cultivating empathy means building an understanding of what others are feeling, of how our actions impact others and why someone might be experiencing feelings at a particular time. And lastly, it is a valuable life skill for all of us to possess. I strongly recommend the Harvard post, “Five Tips for Cultivating Empathy” for your further exploration on topic. They share some suggestions for family conversations to extend the understanding of empathy. I hope you enjoy this important element of parenting and care taking. Thanks for listening.
Steve [Outro]: 12:03 Thanks for listening in folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.