12 ways to practice empathy with kids

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

I'd like to be a Mum who can do it all - I used to think I could, back before I had kids.  That'd I'd be the Mum who would not rely on tv but instead creative educational lessons would fill the hours in the day.  The Mum who made sure her kids were eating only food that was good for them and never made of processed cheese and corn syrup.  The Mum who always looked put together and made time for her own mind, body, and spirit.  The Mum who carved out time for elaborate date nights.  The Mum who has a clean, organized house and even made time to properly clean the coffee maker and wiped out the microwave more than once a month.

I'm consistently none of those Mums and much to my very stubborn heart, it took a long time for me to figure out that it's okay to be a little bit of each of those Mums occasionally (when stars align just so and if all the kids had gotten enough sleep that night and no one is sick, sad, or over-sugar'ed for the day).  But I came to understand that it's more realistic and important to be one Mum; the one that I cared enough about being that I'd make the time every.single.day relentlessly to talk, walk, and model the kind of person I want my kids to grow up to become.

And after some siphoning of my 'wish I could be' and 'who I really am' pieces of myself; I found that the thing I care about most as a Mum is that my children will have the first instincts of empathy and kindness in every situation.  This is what I believe will ensure fullness, gratitude, and happiness in their lives long after I am no longer.  

I want to give them the tools to be able to look across the way and see themselves in any person that they come to meet in their life.  To care about their neighbors; of which every person is in some way.  To empathize before they pass judgement; to know that they have not walked in another person's shoes; haven't seen, heard, or felt all things that another person may have experienced...and to know that although they may disagree; there is still an opportunity to choose and act with kindness and compassion.  That the universe and karma have a way of working things out and to trust that somehow the good will find a way to float up.

Yes, I want them to be smart and talented and well-read and financially successful and well traveled and to care about good food and exercise and care about being organized and clean.  But most of all I want them to be kind.  And not just to the people who are nice to them; but nice to everyone.  Because our is a family that always first chooses kindness and empathy.

So today, I'd like to share 12 ways that we practice Empathy in our home:

1. Tell them stories about when you were little:  Not much captivates our kids more then a story about something that happened to us when we were little kids.  Hearing about how their parents and all the people they know (grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc) were once little kids is delightfully amazing to them.  We tell our kids about all the best memories and traditions from our childhood, but also about times that we made bad choices and the consequences that came with it.  We tell them about choices that we made that hurt someone else and times that we were hurt by someone/thing (physically or emotionally) and the lessons we learned.  Almost after every story we tell them, our kids respond with, "Tell us again."

2. Listen to music and talk about how it sounds and makes them feel:   Music is a great way to build empathy in kids because it supplies a way into experience feelings without being an actual situation that is in front of them or directly impacting them. If a song is on the radio in the car, sometimes I'll ask the kids if they think the song is happy or sad.  When we watch a movie and there is a spooky or exciting part coming up, I'll tell the kids to listen to the music to get an idea of what is going to happen next.

3. Give them opportunities to be selfless:  It feels good to be kind; this is no secret.  We supply plenty of moments for our kids to be kind, just for the sake of being nice to someone.  Many times the burden to us as parents means simply that whatever we are doing will take longer (and require more clean up) but it's worth it.  I let the kids pack lunch for their Dad, bake and deliver cookies to our local fire department or neighbors, create and mail notes and pictures to friends and family through snail mail.  Each member of the family is expected to help whenever needed (cleaning up, opening & holding doors, carrying in groceries, feed pets, etc) because we all need to do our part to contribute to the happiness of our family.

4. Make generosity, kindness, and patience celebrated qualities:  we dole out a boat load of positive reinforcement when it comes to the kids acting generous, kind, and patient.  The reverse, though, is the same - the kids know that we do not condone (nor feel proud) when/if our kids choose greediness, rudeness/bullying, or impatience in their actions.  These are near federal offenses in our house.

5. Play the "Maybe" Game:  When we see someone act a certain way that the kids might not understand for a situation, we play the 'Maybe' Game with them to come up with reasons why the person is behaving like they are.  We make every effort to not supply an easy answer that places blame on someone by making assumptions like a 'bad kid' or 'bad guy.' Instead for example, when we see another kid screaming in the grocery store we start the conversation by naming reasons of Maybe.  Like maybe they're hungry, maybe they wanted something but their mom can't buy it, maybe they are tired, maybe they're having a 'hard day,' maybe they can't talk and can only cry to tell their family they need help....Talking about how many different reasons is a reminder that feelings lead to actions and only actions are visible to everyone, but rarely ever are the reason for the feelings.

6. Practice(and practice some more) celebrating someone else's joy:  This is difficult to do with little kids because kids prefer to be the one who is experiencing special treatment - like birthdays, presents, and happy surprises.  We do this by reminding our kids that seeing our friends and family happy makes us feel good too and we talk about it frequently in big and small moments.  We model shared joy when the kids experience happiness as well as when we hear of good news for our friends and family.  We talk how good things for others can also mean good things for us; someone else's birthday means playing with our friends at a party (even if we aren't getting presents, we still get to have fun!)  And how sharing our happiness (when we get it) is nice - like sharing snacks and new toys.

7. Use the "How can I fix it?" apology:  Besides just saying sorry when we hurt someone (physically or emotionally) we also practice following it by asking How Can We Fix It?  We have talked about ways to help the person feel better after being hurt; things like a hug, high five, sharing a toy, or giving the person some space for awhile.  The kids have also made up secret handshakes, telling each other a joke, or making a picture/sorry note for the person.  Often times that person who was hurt wants to answer that "nothing" can fix it - so this is two fold as it helps the person who is hurt find a way to forgive too even if they don't feel like it at first.

8. Practice sharing someone's sadness:  using the 'How can I fix it' apology helps us practice sharing sadness that we helped create.  It gives kids a chance to see their own contribution to someone's pain but work towards helping the person feel better.  We also model how it's important to share someone's sadness in which we didn't contribute.  How it's important to be there to listen and help for people who have had bad things happen to them.  How lending a hand or listening ear can help make someone who is sad feel a little bit better. We talk about how it feels good when someone helps us when we are sad or hurt. How seeing someone suffer in pain or sadness also somehow makes us feel sad and how that's normal and maybe why that is (because we recognize ourselves in them or their situation).

As parents, it's our natural instinct to guard our own children from feeling sadness, embarrassment, or pain.  But in reality, shielding them from these feelings does them no good.  They will feel this at some point in their life and it will be out of our control.  In our family, we go one step farther then that to help build empathy by also permitting them to see, feel, and talk about other people's sadness.  It helps give them a sense that they are only a piece of a great big world and there are people everywhere experience varying levels of grief, but to also see examples everywhere of these people getting back up and moving on despite it.

9.  Teach them to pay attention to others around them:  This is our first reminder of good behavior when we are in public.  When the kids are acting up in a public place (restaurants, church, public transportation) we whisper to them to look around to see how everyone else is behaving.  It's a helpful reminder that although they are small, they are still part of a bigger picture.  We remind them that everyone else is also trying to enjoy their day and that there is a time and place for playing and being loud and a time and place for being respectful of other people's time, personal space, and quiet.

This also applies to paying attention to others around them while they are playing.  It's easy to get wrapped up in the moment of fun and lose focus of how other people feel.  We practice again and again what we should do if someone begins acting sad or upset while we play with them.  We stress consent when it comes to playing with others and if someone says "No" or "Stop," we stop what we are doing and ask if everything is okay.  The same applies if someone begins to cry or get upset.  We stop what we're doing and check in with them.  Even though we may be having fun, it should never be at the expense of someone else.

10. Give them opportunities to stand up for something:  We make opportunities to give the kids a chance to act courageously on behalf of someone (or something) else - in hopes that someday they will choose courage to stand up for someone/something weaker.  This takes form in many different ways; choosing between killing a bug in the house or 'rescuing' it and putting it outside instead.  Helping to decide punishment for a sibling who made a bad choice.  Choosing to throw a broken toy away vs. fixing it/re-using it for something new...  And then we talk about how their choice made them feel.  It's important to not always feed them the answer that we'd like them to have, but rather present them with a situation in which the consequences of their actions will effect their own feelings.  It's not a bad thing to let them feel guilty or worried about a bad choice on the small things - so they'll remember when it comes later in life with the big things.

11. Help them recognize their own gut feelings:  Greyson calls this 'spidey sense;' that funny feeling everyone has in their guts about moments in which something feels uncomfortable.  This feeling usually happens when faced with a situation in which the line between 'right' and 'wrong' feel very clear.  Many times it is a situation that requires action and a little bit of bravery.  Maybe the action is to go against peer pressure, or say 'no' when someone is asking you to say 'yes,' maybe it's simply to slow down for a second and check your bearings.  We want our kids to be aware of that internal spidey sense and listen to it's warning;  To feed the good wolf.

12. Give them tools to move on:  We know however, that always trying to share other people's feelings can be exhausting and draining.  All people need to be able to move on from feelings that can bring us down and make us feel worried.  Choose a tool that you can practice with the kids that can help them release some of those feelings when they can't seem to get past them.  In our house, that means 'praying about it' and we take a minute to send out a little prayer for the person or situation we are worried about and put it in the hands of the universe.  If your family isn't comfortable with that, you can also do other things - exercise through running or yoga, writing it out in a journal, perform a symbolic gesture (lighting a candle, a secret hand gesture, etc).  Any practice that will help remind your kids that it's important to also let the feeling go and move on.

I wish for a world in which everyone's first instinct is to react with empathy and kindness in all situations.  What would the school systems look like if we cared that our own kids AND the kids in the neighboring town had the best education?  What would the streets look like if we all realized it would take just a short period of hard times for us to also be without a home? What would the media look like if we celebrated empathy and kindness instead of celebrities, injustice and controversy?

In a moment like today, it feels very easy to pass quick judgment and choose a side.  But maybe instead, we can pause for a moment and see ourselves in all those involved.  The people who may have overreacted because they were scared.  The people who overreacted because they are tired of feeling unheard.  The people who got swept up in crowd mentality.  The people who are suffering from a broken heart.  The people who feel relieved and yet also afraid of what happens next.  The people who have to wake up this morning and rebuild.  The people who wake up this morning to see only the bad portrayed in the media and none of the good they were involved in.

Empathy is being able to see yourself in any person.  Believing that you'd never make a certain choice, but also knowing deep down that until you are in that exact moment you don't know for sure what you may or may not do.  That passing judgement is helping no one.  NO.ONE.

And maybe the only thing that will help a situation that is scary and tragic from every single angle is that in your own little, tiny corner of this Earth, you'll make the choice to choose kindness and empathy today.

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