The Greatest Gift to Give a Child – Teach Empathy

SITTING with a little girl in tears, Aaron, himself just a little boy, doesn’t say a word. He just sits there with her, trying to imagine how she feels. She soon felt a little better.

Aaron expressed empathy in a very simple and profound way. A significantly foundational character building block, empathy is possibly the greatest gift a child can receive.

One of the key barriers to empathy in children, however, are social biases that all people tend to experience, like the in-group bias that suggests we tend to favour those we like; those we’re already in community with.

A 2014 study from the Netherlands found that such an in-group bias can be overcome by inducing empathy in a child toward another child in need of help.[1] In this study, children aged between 8 and 13 were asked “How do you think [name of recipient of help] feels?” A control group of children were not asked this question. Both groups of children were asked, “Would you help [name of recipient of help]?” In a significant number of situations, children overcame the in-group bias and were prepared to help out-group children when they were asked the simple question to induce empathy. This suggests that empathy crosses social boundaries in a powerfully positive way.

In simple terms, if we want children to help other children, we ought to realise that empathy helps. We should want our children to help other children, because it helps quantify the status of their moral compass. The practice of empathy helps draw out helping behaviours. When we know how someone feels we are more likely to help them.

Sierksma et al did not explore children’s empathic responses to disliked or stigmatised children. Perhaps the suggestion is that help given to such children may highlight an enhanced skill for empathy in children who would be prepared to help. Sierksma et al do note that empathy “has a critical role in morality… [and is] a powerful intervention strategy early in life.”[2]

Probably most significantly, Sierksma et al show that, through empathy, typical group boundaries can be transcended, simply by asking a child how another child feels – whether they are in the in-group or not.[3] Additionally, another study has shown how empathy in adults helps them value the person in need of help more.[4]

So, to teach empathy to a child can be as simple as asking them frequently how they think other children (or animals or adults) feel. This is an attempt to connect them with their own feelings, for our own feelings are always important to us.

Teaching empathy to children is powerful in their development, because empathy is shown to transcend social biases all humans struggle to overcome. And, because empathy is also a vehicle for empowering a person along a forward trajectory, it gives back to the person giving it out. What parent would not want this for their child?

When children are empathic they show kindness, care and compassion that overcomes barriers to helping. They witness a virtuous power emanate from within themselves. This occurs even as a child asks how another person feels.

ENDNOTES:

[1] Sierksma, J., Thijs, J., & Verkuyten, M., “In-group bias in children’s intention to help can be overpowered by inducing empathy” in British Journal of Developmental Psychology. © 2014, British Psychological Society. Vol. 33. Issue 1. March 2015. pp. 45-56. DOI: 10.1111/bjdp.12065. The abstract states, [E]ncouraging children to imagine how a recipient of help feels might thus be a useful strategy to prevent peer group-based biases in children’s helping behaviour.”

[2] Ibid. p. 53.

[3] Ibid. p. 53.

[4] Batson, C.D., Turk, C.L., Shaw, L.L., & Klien, T.R. “Information function of empathic emotion: Learning that we value the other’s welfare” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1995, 68, pp. 300 – 311. DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.68.2.300.