By: Sam Goldstein, Ph.D.
In our new book, Tenacity in Children, my co-author, Dr. Robert Brooks and I devote a chapter to parental influence in fostering empathy in children. There are many different theories on the concepts of empathy, sympathy, and compassion, but most define empathy as understanding the world of another person on an affective and emotional level. In contrast, sympathy reflects feelings of pity and sorrow for another’s misfortune. Compassion draws upon that understanding to improve the lives of others through action. We believe that the combination of compassion and empathy or Compassionate Empathy is a powerful human instinct, and central to the higher development of our species.
Dr. Brooks and I have been asked at our parenting workshops, “When can parents begin to nurture empathy or compassion in their child?” Without hesitation we reply, “From the moment a child is born.” Sometimes our reply is met with surprise or amusement, followed by the comment, “From birth? What can I do from birth?” There are many things we can do from the time our children are born to reinforce the development of empathy and compassion. In fact, parents do these activities very naturally.
Parents should be aware that whenever they pick up, tenderly hold and soothe their babies, when they smile and gaze into their toddler’s eyes and softly speak to them, they are contributing to the reinforcement of Compassionate Empathy. We have been asked if children can be “spoiled” during their first 12-18 months of life. One example is whether babies should be picked up and held when they continue to cry. As one father queried, “If a baby cries after being in the crib for a while and you pick him up, won’t that rob him of learning to deal with uncomfortable feelings?” We do want children to learn to self-soothe, but we feel comfortable asserting that comforting a distressed one-year old is not likely to lead to that child becoming spoiled and incapable of learning coping skills in childhood.
We recognize that when we are upset, disappointed, or angry, it may seem like a Herculean task to model Compassionate Empathy for our children. As important as empathy and compassion are in enriching our daily lives, they are not always easy to achieve in practice. Adding to our frustration is that as we begin to display these qualities, the challenging situations we face with our children are not resolved overnight. Changing negative mindsets and behaviors requires patience and time. Nevertheless, our perseverance in minimizing negative mindsets and practicing Compassionate Empathy in our actions – secures benefits not the least of which is enriched relationships with our children.