Are we raising empathetic children?

Every once in a while, I make it a point to go to my daughter’s school and have a chat with her teacher. On these occasions, I also have an added advantage of getting to talk to a few of her friends; and that is something that I look forward to. It is through these conversations that I get an idea as to how my daughter is faring among her peers. These conversations are a good yardstick to measure the emotional ability of my five-year old to be around and deal with other children who are from different backgrounds and of different temperaments. After all, just like a glass filled with water from the ocean is a representative of the entire ocean, so is a class of twenty children a representative of the world at large.
So, on one such occasion, after I had met with her teacher, we were getting out of the school, when we saw two children sitting on a bench near the supervisor’s office. 
The girl looked about five and so did the boy sitting with her. The girl seemed sick and the boy was speaking to her animatedly. My daughter recognized them and soon went to them. I joined in too.
Turned out, the girl was not feeling too well and her parents had been called to pick her up. But, what was the boy doing there I wondered. “Is this your brother?” I asked the girl. Embarrassed, my daughter looked up at me “Mamma! This is Adwait. He’s our friend, not Nisha’s brother!” Properly chastised, I greeted the boy. I couldn't help wondering though, as to what he was doing there. He said that he was keeping the girl company till someone came for her.
“She’s my friend, aunty! She is not feeling well. See, I have made a pretend map for her so that we can chart her mom’s progress as she comes to pick her up. She’s been crying waiting for her mom, but I was telling her, if you look at this map, your mom will reach here just in time to pick you up when school lets out!” (These last few words he said to me with a wink) I must admit, I couldn't help but smile at this sweet little charmer!
That night when I went to tuck my daughter in for the night, she sat up in bed and asked me with a frown. “Mamma, Adwait deliberately told Nisha that her mom cannot reach before pick up time, right? So that she doesn't feel like she’s waiting for long? He was just trying to make her feel better, wasn't he?”
“Yes, sweetheart,” I said. “He didn't know when her mom would come for her, but he didn't want her to feel like she was waiting for a long time; and that is why he made that pretend map for her to keep her mind off things. “
“Adwait is a good boy, isn't he mamma?” asked my kiddo.
“Yes, darling, he of course is!” I had to admit. 
couldn't help but marvel at the empathy that little boy had shown his friend. It wasn't easy for me to believe that someone so young could display such a complex emotion, but there it was, right in front of me.  
When I decided to look it up, though, I found that there are studies which show that even newborns are capable of displaying empathetic behaviour just 18 to 72 hours after birth. When a newborn was placed next to another crying infant, the baby could feel the distress of the other child and cried. I found that, according to research, humans are born with the ability to understand and display empathetic behaviour. As we grow, this ability gradually grows and we learn several ways of expressing empathetic behaviour including the verbal expression as well as facial concern and interest in another’s distress. With age, also grows our ability to understand another person’s perspective, in addition to feeling his distress. And finally, we inculcate amongst us, the cognitive ability to display our empathetic behaviour.  
Empathy is defined roughly as the ability to understand what another person is experiencing from the other person's perspective. It is, literally, the capacity to put oneself in another’s shoes. It is a pretty complex emotion, but is ever present in us humans, nevertheless.
Researchers have found that in addition to inborn ability, how a child is raised by his parents also has an impact on the development of social behaviour, understanding and empathetic feelings in children. We can take away a few positive and negative pointers from their studies, which can point us parents in the right direction.
Some positive pointers –  
Responsive nurturing: Research has shown that children whose mothers are responsive, open, non authoritative and non-punitive towards them are found to display higher levels of empathy and helpful behaviour.
Reasoning: Studies show that reasoning and talking with children, even toddlers, about the effect of their behaviour with others as well as the importance of sharing and being kind can be effective in promoting empathy and positive behaviour in children.
Role models: Parental display of model behaviour that is empathetic and caring towards their children and others in front of their children isalso found to have a positive effect on children.
Explain and suggest: Where children were found to hurt others or cause them distress; studies showed, that reasoning with them and explaining to them the harmful effects of their behaviour as well as providing them suggestions for making amends has a long term positive effect.
Discuss feelings and problems: Another positive way of inculcating empathetic skills in children is to encourage gradeschoolers to discuss their feelings and their problems.
Researchers have also found out parental behaviour that can have negative effects on the development of children’s empathetic skills.
Some negative pointers –
Physical punishments or threats: Physical punishments meted out to children inorder to improve their behaviour, are found to be counterproductive.
Extrinsic rewards or bribes: Bribes or promises of rewards to children in an attempt to improve their grades or behaviour too have negative effects on their social skills.
 In today’s world, we see a lot of apathy around us. We see many maladjusted people bearing grudges against others trying to harm them and in the process harming the innocent and the delicate as well. It is in this situation, that we need to raise empathetic, pro-social individuals who can feel for others and refrain from causing hurt. But of course, this needs to begin at home. Like the boy I met in my daughter’s school, we need more children who can make the world a better place for everyone.    

Comments

  1. very nice post Rashmi...loved it and would say that u should keep writing more

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  2. Loved the way you have put in facts and some pointers at the end!!!

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  3. Thanks Shabda! Love the feedback :)

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