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.

  • 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 đŸ™‚

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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).

  • 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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