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Empathy vs Sympathy

As parents, we want the best for our children. We want them to be happy, successful and fulfilled in whatever career they may one day choose. Most of all, we want our children to fit into society, to be well-liked and to form strong, positive relationships with others.

One of the most important ways in which we can help our children to become kind, caring adults is to teach them to be empathetic toward others.

Empathy is often confused with sympathy, so here’s a definition that will help you distinguish between the two:

Sympathy is a form of compassion. It can be described as a feeling of pity or sadness for the suffering of another and is often accompanied by the wish to help the other person feel better. Simply put, you are feeling sympathy for someone when you find yourself experiencing the same (or very similar) emotions as the person who is suffering.

Empathy is also a form of compassion. It is the ability to fully appreciate another person’s situation and feelings, to see and understand things from their perspective. To ‘walk in their shoes’ so to speak. When you are being empathetic toward another person you are able to understand why and how they feel the way they do, as if you were in the same situation.

Empathy lies at the very core of being human. Both sympathy and empathy are innate in human beings and can be seen in very young children. Empathy, however, is a skill that can be learned and improved upon. The ability to understand another person’s perspective and to be compassionately responsive when needed is a powerful foundation for healthy and productive relationships. So, how can we teach our children to be more empathetic?

Be a good role model.

As parents, you know that your child learns infinitely more from watching you than from listening to you. Empathise with your child by being tuned in to his physical and emotional needs. Be genuinely interested in your child’s life, respect his individual perspective and be compassionate when he makes mistakes.

Practice empathy in your dealings with others. Your child watches how you speak to the waiter at a restaurant, the attendant in the car park or the person at the till in the supermarket. Your child will notice how you treat the neighbours, what you say about others when they are not present or how compassionate you are toward those who are less well off than you are.

Make caring for others a main concern.

We often say things to our children like, ‘As long as you’re happy, that’s all that matters.’ Consider changing that to, ‘It’s important that you are kind and caring to others. The kinder you are to others, the happier you will be.’ This helps your child to understand that, while he is very important to you, the universe does not revolve around him. Other people have feelings, too and it is sometimes necessary to put the happiness of others above one’s own.

Extend your child’s empathy horizons.

It’s easy to be empathetic toward family, friends and people who are similar to ourselves but learning to understand the different perspectives of people outside that circle is an excellent way of teaching empathy. Consider an age-appropriate activity for your child that will bring him into contact with people in different circumstances. Some form of service to the community such as helping out at an animal shelter, a children’s home or even a home for the elderly is an excellent way of helping him develop his skill at empathising.

Keep the lines of communication open.

Have regular discussions with your child about the kind of moral and ethical dilemmas that he might be facing. What should he do if he sees someone being bullied at school? Should he invite someone he likes to his birthday party even though his other friends don’t like this person? Should he report someone he saw cheating in a test?

These discussions can help your child think about various perspectives and appreciate other points of view, which will help him, not only to increase his empathy toward others but to make better choices for himself.

It may not always be possible to be empathetic but working to improve our empathy toward others is to develop a skill that will positively enhance all our interpersonal relationships, leading to greater well-being through life.

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