Choose your Cause and Foster Empathy in your Kids!

Research suggests that empathy is a complex phenomenon involving several component skills:

• A sense of self-awareness and the ability to distinguish one’s own feelings from the feelings of others.

• Taking another person’s perspective (or, alternatively, “putting oneself in another person’s shoes”).

• Being able to regulate one’s own emotional responses.

These skills might seem like standard-issue, grownup social skills, and indeed they are. However, even adults can have trouble with these abilities. For instance, some adults would shrink from offering a wounded person first aid, not because they are callous but because they have trouble coping with their own emotional reactions to the other person’s plight.

Human empathy involves a whole package of skills and social beliefs. Most of these must be learned.

• Numerous studies have reported a link between parenting practices and empathy in children.

• Genetics might explain some of the differences between individuals. But experiments demonstrate that adults can learn to be more sensitive and responsive. If grown-ups can learn empathy, why can’t kids?

• While studies confirm that females report greater feelings of empathy, that doesn’t mean they experience more empathy. It’s likely that cultural training plays a big role in the way that girls and boys behave when they feel empathy. Cultural training starts early so empathy skills must as well.

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