Dr. Brené Brown has become famous for her speaking and writing about vulnerability, worthiness, shame and the other important emotions running underneath daily life all the time. One theme she returns to over and over is the importance of cultivating empathy, a very different reaction than sympathy.

Dr. Brown says empathy consists of four qualities: the ability to take the perspective of another person, staying away from judgment, recognizing emotion in others, and communicating it. She defines empathy as “feeling with people,” and notes that it’s a “vulnerable choice” because it requires a person to tap into something personal that identifies with the struggle of another.

Children have opportunities to learn empathy from their parents, but also from their teachers and peers. Reading good literature can be a powerful way to develop empathy, as is studying history or being present with a friend on the playground who is having a hard time. Empathy is not found in many official school standards, but it could be one of the most important qualities to develop in young citizens who will go on to be successful actors in a complicated world.

Empathy Is Tough to Teach, But Is One Of the Most Important Life Lessons 8 February,2017MindShift

  • Hillary Clintub

    Unfortunately, empathy is even tougher to unteach. Kids who are taught to be empathetic without also learning where to draw the line are being set up to be victims their whole life long. I read an article about that this very morning on another site. Kids need to learn when to take a baseball bat to their would-be abusers.

    • I think both have significant role, empathy and sympathy. A balance is needed and once one starts balancing, it will bring something incredible 🙂

    • Debra Anstis

      Yes empathy with personal boundaries, as narcissists feed on empathetic people.

      • Keleborn Telperion

        I might even go so far as to say that modeling healthy boundaries, by showing kids respect, is the way to allow children to preserve their natural empathy. For the response to repeated boundary violations is either feeling what others expect or demand of you to feel (in which case empathy is a meaningless illusion), or else creating walls and becoming emotionally unresponsive and invulnerable.
        Of course it is a bit of a paradox to try to communicate respect when your relationship with someone consists of giving them orders, praise, and punishment.

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  • Judy Yero

    I’m not sure you can “teach” empathy in the same way you “teach” math–give children a definition and a bunch of rules and then make them “practice” it. The most effective way to “teach” a behavior or a mindset is to model it. In other words, walk your talk. Review your day and reflect on where you have or have not modeled empathy. I agree that there are times when “taking a bat to would-abusers” might be appropriate…but there are many other times when setting boundaries by being firm, but respectful, may work equally well. There are so many different contexts in which our expression of empathy differs. Through modeling, children grasp a much broader understanding than trying to “teach” them what it means.

    • Teri

      I think it is possible to teach empathy. Children can be taught it by showing them how to see the world through the view of another. Reading books, caring for pets — so many ways to begin to see beyond ourselves. But it does need to be taught, and modeled.

    • mastadge

      Then again, giving children “a definition and a bunch of rules” is a lousy way to teach math and probably a good part of the reason so many people hate and fear mathematics.

      • Judy Yero

        Couldn’t agree more! Same for science, history, language, etc. I do wish educators would shift their focus from teaching to learning…and how that occurs BEFORE we make kids sit in desks and “pay attention.” In play-based preschools, where the focus is on authentic learning through play, children learn how to interact with others by interacting with other…successfully and unsuccessfully. And each time they “fail,” they gain the feedback they need to try something different the next time. The greatest gift a “teacher” can give them is to simply observe, point out what happened without judgment, and let the children process the information in their own way (not because a RULE says this is the way you have to behave). These children authentically learn how to cooperate and negotiate…by doing!

    • Keleborn Telperion

      Just for the record, that’s not how you teach or learn math, either. School mathematics is not mathematics. But of course I understand your analogy. I’d just prefer to say that teaching empathy is not like training a dog to jump through a hoop. Actually the children I’ve known were already naturally empathic; they just don’t show it unless you’ve shown yourself to be willing and able to reciprocate.
      They are of course also quite ready to answer perceived injustice with resentment. Far too many adults want to teach children to respond to injustice with empathy. Could it be because they want to be forgiven for their own crimes?

  • Norman Umberger

    And compassion, how does it differ and where does it fit in?

    • Teri

      Compassion is, from my understanding, seeing suffering and wanting to fix it. Empathy may well give rise to compassion but compassion does not require empathy. It may be sympathy, or simply a detached intellectual recognition that another is in pain. Empathy begins the process of seeing/feeling through the eyes of another, rather than from our own view.

    • Julie Koewler

      Compassion comes out of one’s need or feeling to help someone else, it could be because you understand that other person is in need of help. Compassion builds empathy in long run. Sympathy means you understand that someone is distressed but you may not have had similar experience in your life. https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-difference-between-empathy-and-compassion

  • Cris

    I would LOVE to know which literature you advice reading!!!!

    • Deb

      If you Google “Alfie Kohn Empathy” you should get some hits. There’s a short video clip out there about empathy and altruism in PRESCHOOLERS – evidence suggests we are born with it and only need it modeled and opportunities to practice and internalize it, rather than something like Empathy Lessons (which in these days of SEL instruction are actually a Thing, believe it or not).

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  • Perrine De la Cruz

    I agree that empathy is one of the most important qualities that students/learners must have. I think that one of the best ways to teach it, aside from reading good literature, is to show them how it’s done.

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  • Greg Jarmiolowski

    http://www.empathytrainers.com/ This might be relevant, the Empathy Trainers Association.

  • Gill Greensite

    For a different perspective, read Against Empathy. by Paul Bloom.

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