Responding with empathy is more naturally instinctive for some individuals than others. Just as one child might be stronger in math and another in spelling, we all bend in certain directions. Some of us are more extroverted, some of us more introverted. Some more analytical, some more creative. We could circle around the nature vs. nurture argument for days, months or years. Bottom line - both are contributing factors.
Some individuals more naturally think of others, and some more naturally think of themselves. During adolescence, we all spend more time thinking about ourselves. Sadly, some adults never move beyond that tendency. We believe the milestone of Empathy is like a muscle. That muscle may naturally be weaker or under-developed in some kids, and more developed in others. The good news being, the more we exercise weak muscles, the stronger they get. Let’s take a closer look at helping flex the muscle of empathy and supporting our kids developing this vital milestone.
Stumbling Block #1: Competition
Boys are naturally competitive. Our objective should never be to work the competition out of him. I don’t believe we could even if we tried. Being competitive is instinctive and will serve him well in so many moments of his development, well into adult manhood. The objective becomes helping him develop more fully. We want him to be more than a one-dimensional character. In order to be relationally successful, he needs the skills of collaboration every bit as much as his natural ability to compete. He needs to be able to compromise. He needs to master the art of civility. Equally, he needs the skills of reciprocity, the give and take of relationship.
If a boy only exists in competitive environments, the only posture familiar him is being against rather than being for. It’s wonderful if he loves playing competitive sports. There’s so much to be learned within that context. He will certainly have opportunities to support his teammates, and to develop the skills of sportsmanship, but he will primarily be competing. Alongside competitive opportunities, he needs opportunity for service.
Building Block #1: Experience
When we practice active listening with our kids, our sons have the best chance at making a connection. We’ve already discussed him as an experiential learner. We can’t talk empathy into him. We can’t lecture empathy into him. Practice makes progress.
When my daughter was in 8th grade, the school sent an email informing parents about an upcoming field trip. It included the usual information - time, date, lunch instructions, and a release form needing a signature. But I found myself drawn further into the explanation of the trip.
The email explained how each student had selected a character trait to examine. Part one was to define the character trait. Part two involved a set of interviews. The first interview included the field trip to various assisted living facilities across the city. Students would conduct interviews with residents - listening and recording their stories, looking for any examples of the particular character trait they’d examined.
The email went on to say they’d been discussing interview questions in class, how to inquire with dignity and respect, and questions that might best facilitate their character study. Part three involved an interview with us as parents, where they’d listen for any evidence of the particular character trait.
I was so blown away by the intentionality of the assignment, I emailed the teacher back simply to say how deeply encouraged I was by this assignment. I commented on the layers of benefit within this project. No only the the opportunity to study character, but the value of exercising empathy, active listening, reciprocity and compassion during the interview process. All of this alongside the obvious benefit of learning about the lives of individuals who’ve lived through both World Wars, the Great Depression, and so many other significant moments in history.
My daughter and four of her classmates had the opportunity to interview and spend time with a woman who had recently celebrated her 109th birthday. My daughter described her as fascinating, kind, generous, and “with a wonderful memory!” She retold many of the stories this dear woman had shared about living a century of life - all that she had seen and experienced in that time.
I reminded my daughter, interviewing me wouldn’t be nearly as fascinating. I was struck by how easily we could weave these kinds of rich experiences in the lives of our kids. What would it look like to connect our kids more with their grandparents, elder members of our church community, or those living in an assisted living facility nearby? To hear their stories, to study character, to learn more about conversation and listening, to bless folks with a much needed visit and to be blessed ourselves in the process.
For more practical ideas on how to teach empathy, check out our new book, Are My Kids on Track?