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Ways to Nurture Compassion in Children

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“If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors.” Frederick Buechner

I don’t remember what shenanigans were going on the afternoon when my kids were small and I spoke sharply to my 2-year-old son, Alex. What I do remember is how my daughter, then 5 years old, responded. “Mommy, don’t speak to Alex that way, you’ll hurt his heart.” Though I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing, I appreciated my daughter’s concern for her younger brother’s “heart.”

According to clinical psychologist Lara Mattox, Ph.D., Kathryn’s response indicated normal emotional development for a 5-year-old.

“Empathy requires something called Theory of Mind,” Mattox said. “It is a concept that is developing in children ages 3 to 5 and entails being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”

People lacking Theory of Mind are sometimes said to have “mindblindness”—difficulty imagining that anyone else has thoughts or feelings different from their own. Individuals on the Autism Spectrum usually struggle with mindblindness (although Mattox points out that some on the spectrum actually over-identify with other’s emotions), but Mattox encourages parents to remember that there is a wide range of normal in the development of Theory of Mind.

“Even if you think your child is old enough to be empathetic, it may be in process. Also, some people are just born more empathetic than others. Fortunately,” she said, “that’s not to say that those born with less natural empathy are doomed to have less all their lives. Empathy can be taught.”

According to Nancy Eisenberg, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Arizona State University, one of the nation’s leading researchers on children’s pro-social behavior, and author of The Caring Child, the first and most important way to “teach” children empathy is to allow them to experience it firsthand.

“Adults can strengthen a child’s capacity for empathy and sympathy by being supportive and sensitive,” wrote Eisenberg in an article for The Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education. “Children are better able to attend to others’ emotional needs if their own needs are met.”

Additionally, Eisenberg points out that by meeting a child’s needs, parents are modeling behavior that children will imitate. She also advocates “supportive and sensitive” rather than “punitive” parenting and discipline.

“When parents use harsh discipline, children tend to focus on their own needs and on avoiding punishment rather than attending the needs of others,”  Eisenberg writes.

Mattox encourages parents to talk to their children about feelings and to help them identify their own feelings and the feelings of others.

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