Winning Over Endangered Empathy

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Children are born kind, but they face all kinds of social challenges growing up. Lead them by example through compassion.

On a hot summer day, Beth Nowak’s 6-year-old daughter thought the neighborhood dogs taking afternoon walks might be thirsty. She asked her mom if she could put a bucket of water at the end of the driveway for passing canines to enjoy. She realized she needed a sign: FREE WATER! And on the heels of that, she figured the dogs’ humans might be parched, too. Perhaps she should put out lemonade for them, too!

This thoughtfulness makes we grown-ups smile. It’s sweet. But we also know that soon enough, this caring little girl can become  jaded. Thirsty dogs and their human companions will be someone else’s problem to solve. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Parents can encourage this mix of caring and creativity that children display so naturally, and the best part is that the necessary ingredient already resides in their hearts. It’s called empathy.

What does it mean to empathetic?

Some scholars define empathy as the ability to understand another person’s perspective and feelings about a situation. Others add that an empathetic person will respond to that understanding — a child offers a favorite toy to an upset friend, for example.
Although there is debate over empathy as a natural-born quality, plenty of evidence supports the idea that it is instinctive in children.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, located in Germany, conducted a study in which 3- and 5-year-olds watched a puppet “steal” items from another puppet.  They found that the children would then take those “stolen” items from the misbehaving puppet and return them to the original owner — indicating that preschoolers could show concern for others and even go so far as to help by returning the items.

“I believe children are innately altruistic,” says Nowak, who is also the founder of GivingFamilies.com, a program that helps subscribing families find ways to tap into their children’s giving nature with Family Giving Challenges — activities for ages 3 – 7 to do with their parents that demonstrate and encourage generosity, like making Christmas cards for seniors.

In spite of its seemingly natural origins, researchers are finding that empathy in general is on the decline. A 2010 University of Michigan at Ann Arbor study found that college students’ self-reported empathy has been decreasing since 1980.

What’s happening to cause the decline? Theories abound, including an increase in screen time, which lends itself to social isolation. Anonymity makes it easier for us to dismiss people in need of sympathy. When our “friendships” are limited to social media and screens, it keeps us from engaging with real people in the real, huggable, world.

For Nowak, empathy’s decline can be traced to reward systems that typically begin around potty-training time. When we reward a tot for good or desirable behavior (like making it to the potty on time or sharing with another tot), children learn to focus on the reward and not the actual behavior. Do this enough, and you have a child more interested in racking up achievements for a prize rather than developing a kind and generous character.

Unintentionally or not, we can actually grind the kindness right out of children. A tendency toward meanness has infiltrated our world, even our senses of humor: Fail videos and SnarkEcards are popular. Sarcasm and cynicism have reached the point where news-devoted web sites have developed sections titled “Good News,” aiming to bring back a little joy and kindness to the world. And it’s affecting kids. As early as age 4, kids learn to group like items, and discriminate against those that don’t belong.

Studies at the University of Texas put children in different colored t-shirts to observe whether they would eventually develop biases based on those shirts. The study found that if adults ignored the t-shirts, kids did too. But if the adults grouped kids by the color of their t-shirt, or drew attention to the blue t-shirts’ accomplishments over the red t-shirts’, kids began to think more highly of their own t-shirt-wearing peers than those wearing other colors. It’s not hard to imagine these kids taking the next step from recognizing differences to punishing others for being different.

Bringing Children Back from the Brink of “Mean”

Read. Frequent readers of fiction have a greater capacity for empathy, according to a study from York University in Toronto. Why? Reading requires the use of the imagination. When reading, children actively engaged in picturing the character, his environment, what his friends look like, and how he feels about them. It’s the same kind of imagination required of empathy — you have to be able to picture yourself in someone else’s shoes before you can understand what the world looks like through their eyes.

Role model. Kids are natural mimics, and if Mom or Dad is working to make their corner of the world a better place, kids learn they should, too.

Volunteer. Involving kids in volunteer tasks, whether it’s an organized effort or something as simple as picking up litter in the park, teaches them about others and how others may need help.These activities also make for great conversation starters. Eventually, Nowak says, kids who volunteer with their families will go from active participants to idea generators, because the creativity that nurtures their empathy also develops their problem-solving skills.

Be unafraid. It’s OK for kids to know that bad things happen.

“Even at a young age, kids are ready for the world,” says Nowak. It teaches them how to be grateful for what they have. With your guidance, learning about bad things also teaches them about all the good they can do. They are reminded that they can make a difference in the lives of others. In an increasingly cynical world, kids are powerful because of their unlimited capacity for kindness. But it’s up to us to keep them that way.


How to Make a Difference

  • Check out the United Way of Greater Cincinnati’s Volunteer Connection. Head to uwgc.org to search for projects designed for grown-ups, teens and families with younger children.
  • GivingFamilies.com, founded by former teacher Beth Nowak, offers monthly Good Mail Challenges, full of fun activities for ages 3 – 7 that help families make memories together, all while completing a project that benefits others.
  • FreestoreFoodbank is seeking volunteers this month to help with food distribution during select shifts on Nov. 23 – 25 at the Customer Connection Center (112 East Liberty St.). Ages 10 and older can join the action and help distribute holiday boxes to families in need. Call 513-482-7557, e-mail trollins@freestorefoodbank.org, or visit freestorefoodbank.org.

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