Empathy for the next generation

by Kristin on November 8, 2012

in Love, family & community

Photo by NeilGHamilton

My older daughter was complaining about her younger sister, and the way she gets all “worked up and stressed out about things.” I agreed that it isn’t right to let our stress spill out all over people we love, who just happen to be in the vicinity.

“But this is also a good moment to practice some empathy,” I reminded her.

“Oh yeah…empathy! We’ve talked about that word before.”

The response, from a smart 14-year-old, both amused and troubled me. It isn’t that she doesn’t know what empathy is—she knows what the word means, and she also knows how the act of empathy, both as the giver and the receiver, feels. No, what struck me is how surprising the word seemed to her, as if it had been buried deep in her vocabulary bank—so deep she would have never stumbled upon it on her own. I had to unearth it, dust it off, and hand it to her.

I shouldn’t be surprised, really. Ours is not a culture that promotes empathy. Yes, we’re big into anti-bullying campaigns and love our food drives—we love seeing how tall our stacks of collected canned goods and boxes of baking mix can get. Those types of efforts are important, but the attitude that drives them seems a bit off—they’re focused on being against bad things, like bullying and hunger, rather than for things, like compassion and equality.

And besides, we’re a culture that likes to blame, and to explain things away. It’s an anti-empathic way of seeing the world, really. People get themselves into these situations, we tell ourselves. They make choices that often lead to tough life situations. Sure, we’ll lend a hand—we’re not cold-hearted—but they really only have themselves to blame for their difficulties.

I want my daughters and their classmates to grow up reaching out others not out of responsibility, with a sigh, or out of pity, with a shake of the head, but out of empathy. How do we get from here to there?

Part of the challenge with empathy, I realized, is rooted in how different we all are, as individuals. I’m not just talking about our personality differences—like two sisters who grow up in the same house but can still have vastly different reactions to life—but also our broad range of life experiences. It’s hard to identify with how someone else is feeling if we’ve never felt that way—if we’ve never been a minority, if we’ve never been the victim of a natural disaster, if we’ve never waited for a scary diagnosis, or been a step away from being homeless. If true empathy is, as some definitions suggest, being able to identify with another’s feelings, is that even possible, always?

But what if true empathy is having the capacity to recognize how someone else is feeling, and to care about it? That, to me, feels like something we can nurture in ourselves and our kids. In fact, it strikes me as something we must figure out how to nurture in younger generations, as they grow up in an increasingly more polarized world.

So how do we get from here to there? How do we teach our children how to empathize not just with someone whose feelings they can relate to, but also with someone whose life is hard for them to even fathom?

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  • http://www.allthingsbeautifulblog.com/ Alyssa Bacon-Liu

    You bring up such good points. Empathy is not something taught to young people because it’s not modeled. We exploit people on reality TV. We mock others mercilessly on the internet. It makes me sick reading news stories of teens threatening to kill President Obama. Empathy is not a virtue that’s taught often enough. If we want young people to be empathetic, adults need to get their act together and start leading by example.

    • kt_writes

      Exactly! So maybe the real question is this: How can we get a culture of adults to start valuing the importance of empathy? We can’t *make* people care. And so many people seem to be drawn to the mocking and exploitation. It makes me sick, too.

  • http://twitter.com/chicagomama Brenna D

    Get ready for some incoherent, rambling thoughts…….

    I think this was so obvious when watching my FB feed this election season. My FB feed reads much more conservative than my twitter feed. And my FB friends could not for the life of them wrap their head around a Christian who was liberal. Just could not.

    I think Christians, or people in general, can have a different viewpoint without their character being questioned. Yet in this season, that was what seemed to be on trial – peoples’ character.

    You point out so well, it’s easy to appear empathetic when it is someone or a situation similar to us. But maybe that’s not empathy as much as sympathy…..Empathy seems to hang out in the area that is unfamiliar. I think that is why it can be such a difficult characteristic to cultivate.

    • kt_writes

      These aren’t incoherent thoughts at all! I’m glad you brought up the election season. I actually started writing this post on Monday with the intention of weaving in the election, but I was having trouble bringing it all home. :) You’ve put your finger on it, though—our political polarization has a lot to do with how little empathy we have for others. It isn’t just about empathy for the poor or those without healthcare. It’s empathy for different viewpoints, or at the very least, respect and civility for them.

  • http://www.throughaglass.net Kari

    Did you see this article that says that college kids are 40% lower in empathy than they were 20 or 30 years ago? (Measured by some questionnaire.) I thought about this post when I read it.


    • kt_writes

      Finally got a chance to read that article. Thanks for sharing it (although what a sad reality, eh?). Sometimes I wonder whether I’m just imagining these changes in society—if it’s just a sign that I’m becoming an old woman!

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  • Jenny E

    I came over here from Alise-Write! I love this. I, too, am attempting to model empathy for my kiddos (who are only 2 and 4, so we’re still early in the process). I think that lots of us grew up with a “suck it up” mentality, and rationalize that if we had to suck it up, everybody else can too. I wonder if we feel like other people’s feelings disproportionate to the situation or “wrong” partly because they are inconvenient. Our own feelings are often inconvenient as well, so we just file them away. I think that it might need to start with us being able to identify and give space to our own feelings and help our children do the same.

    • kt_writes

      Thanks for reading and commenting! You’re really hitting on something significant, I think, with the prevalent “suck it up” mentality. And YES—these feelings we have and others have are SO inconvenient. We’d much rather pretend they aren’t there than face them. Great thoughts!

  • Margaret

    great question! Always difficult to try to grow empathy in somebody else

  • Cindy

    Have them read stories!! Learning to identify with characters in good stories instills empathy.

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  • themoderngal

    Empathy is probably one of the most important things we can teach the next generation, and yet it seems to be the thing that isn’t being taught. It seems the way I’ve learned it is through taking myself out of my comfort zone and by trying to get to know as many people as I can who seem to be unlike me. The trick seems to be learning that life can be tough for everyone, just in different ways, and that sharing kindness can make everyone’s lives a little bit easier.