Girls, Boys & Empathy

How can I help my kids learn to be more empathetic?

Girls can be, by nature, very empathetic.  They are highly intuitive and relational creatures.  When we were writing Raising Girls, we heard story after story of girls who were in tune and responsive to the needs of others around them.  You’ve seen it yourself.  Your daughter is running toward the soccer goal kicking the ball.  Her friend falls down behind her.  What does she do?  She forgets the ball and goes back to help her friend.  However, the closer they get toward adolescence, the more these girls also evolve into narcissistic creatures.

What can you do?  How can you help instill empathy now and maintain it through the turbulent teen years?

  1. Role Play.  When you hear about or witness the suffering of another—whether it’s someone in your family, at her school, or a homeless person on the street, allow it to be a vehicle for conversation.  Ask your daughter how she would feel if she were that person.  What could she do to help? 
  2. Zoom in and Out.  Make it a family priority to give.  When your neighbor is sick or hurting in some way, have her help you make them a meal.  Zoom in to the people closest around you with opportunities to give.  And then zoom out.  Go on a family mission trip.  Help build a habitat house.  Use those times as opportunities to role play, too.
  3. Use conflict as a means to teach empathy.  When she comes home frustrated or hurt by another, have her take their position in the argument, too.  What could that person have been thinking or feeling?

We want to use any opportunity not just to talk about empathy, but to practice it.  We want her to see that God can use her…her heart, her kindness and her actions to love someone else in a way that makes a difference in not just the recipients life—but hers, too, as the giver.

Unfortunately for our sons, empathy isn’t always as instinctive.  Boys can have a harder time reading and naming their own emotions, much less understanding and responding to those of others.  The good news - empathy is like a muscle, and the more we work it, the stronger it gets.   How can we do that?

  1. Collaboration.   Boys are instinctively competitive.  They know how to be against each other, but not necessarily how for each other.  Group projects in school will create opportunities to collaborate with peers, but he needs us to usher him toward others - service and volunteering create the dual benefit of collaboration and purpose.
  2. Clues.  Movies and books can be great teachers.  Assign boys “detective work” when reading chapter books with them or watching a movie.  Ask them questions like “what was the character feeling?” or “what do you think he needed from his friend/parent/teacher?”   These questions allow boys to study empathy and to see concrete evidence, strengthening their connections.  
  3. Challenge.  It’s most natural when someone shares about their basketball game, to then talk about what happened at your own game, rather than asking questions or commenting on their experience.   The Message translates Romans 12:15-16 as “Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down.”  Challenge your son to write a note to a friend who lost a pet, make a video congratulating a cousin on a soccer victory, or calling family friends to celebrate a recent adoption.  He will benefit from an action step that allows him to flex the empathy muscle.