Can Empathy Be Taught?

Written by Karen Holt, edited by Abigail Keenan

A big question for educators and parents alike has to do with how we can help children develop empathy.

The good news is, as far as Montessori School of Anderson is concerned, it is built into our very fabric. We do not teach empathy so much as we model empathy. It is inherent in all our classrooms across campus as a foundational piece of a Montessori education.

That is one of the advantages of having a three-year age span. The six-year-olds in a class happily teach the three-year-olds. A five-year-old comforts a three-year-old on the playground who has taken a tumble. The third grader listens to the first grader read from a book. When the younger child comes to a difficult word, the third grader (having remembered that feeling just a short time ago), encourages the first grader to sound it out and gives hints if necessary. Upper Elementary does community service with toddlers and Primary children while the middle schoolers do community service at West Market, where they work one on one with preschoolers. These are just a few daily examples from around our campus. It isn’t “cool” to care about little kids in most larger school settings, but here it is a regular part of the day.

But what about at home? What can family members do to help children learn to be empathetic? Modeling is still the very best way. To teach empathy, help your child understand how the other child, adult, or animal is being affected by an uncaring act; identify the emotion for young children so that they can learn to better understand others’ feelings. “Do you see her face? Does it look sad, happy?” Just helping a child read faces is a big part of picking up empathy. Giving a name to the emotional reaction allows the offending child to learn to recognize and identify that emotion. “Why is the dog cowering in the corner? Does he look frightened?” “How do you think Grandma felt when you didn’t respond to her?” The question allows the child to see/feel it for himself.

Now, learning how to offer a genuine apology is an important part of a child’s emotional development that isn’t always considered. The standard practice is to force an apology if one isn’t forthcoming on its own. “Go say you are sorry,” even if you aren’t. Genuinely feeling sorry is an internal emotion, an empathetic emotion. Forcing an apology from a child teaches the child to recite words without meaning behind them. A coerced apology leads to hollow emotions and if offered too frequently can become a lifelong pattern. We all know of adults who may say the words, but we are well aware they don’t mean them.

So, if the child is not ready to say they are sorry, model it yourself: “I am sorry that Michael knocked the blocks down and made you feel sad.” An apology has been offered genuinely and your child has witnessed the interaction with more openness. “I am sorry, Grandma, that Emily didn’t respond to your question. I think she’s listening now.” Even in comforting the family dog, the modeling can be the same. “I am sorry that Johnny hit you with a stick. Come here and let me pet you for a minute.”

And above all, monitor what your children are seeing on TV, in the movies, and playing on video games. Be careful that they don’t pick up any family dialogue on the state of the political climate. Remember, children have big ears.

That’s a topic for another day, though… or better yet, a whole evening of parental education: How to Control Media Mania!

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