SITTING with a little girl in tears, Aaron, himself just a little boy, doesn’t say a word. He just sits there with her, looking like he’s trying to imagine how she feels. She soon seems to feel a little better. When they both get on with the next activity, Aaron appears to think nothing of what has happened; his help was offered and received with the minimum of fuss. Aaron doesn’t look for kudos as an adult might.
As an adult looking on, I was astounded as to what appeared to take place. Something simple was done and it seemed to have such a profound effect. It was striking that neither child thought much of what took place, nor did any other adult observe it.
Aaron expressed empathy in a very simple and substantial way. A significantly foundational character trait of otherness, I wondered if this behaviour in Aaron could be described as empathy. I also wondered if it is possibly the greatest gift a child can receive, especially when they’re hurt. It certainly seems such a valuable attribute for a human being to have. Young Aaron displayed what parents would find alluring, and wish for their kids to have, but many might instantly distance themselves from the possibility that their child could behave that way. As adults, we understand how challenging it is to be consistently empathic.
If we lack faith in our own ability to be empathic, we must certainly lack faith that our son or daughter or grandchild could achieve it.
One of the key barriers to empathy in children are social biases that all people tend to experience, like the in-group bias that suggests we tend to favour those we like; those we’re already in community with. My wife and I noticed this recently when our four-year-old son started at a new school. We’re now acutely aware of this bias. No matter who the child is, there seems to be so much rejection to face before inclusion is finally experienced.
A 2014 study from the Netherlands found that such an in-group bias can be overcome by inducing empathy in a child toward another child in need of help.
In this study, children aged between 8 and 13 were asked “How do you think he or she feels?” A control group of children were not asked this question. Both groups of children were asked, “Would you help him or her?” In a significant number of situations, children overcame the in-group bias and were prepared to help out-group children when they were asked the simple question to induce empathy. This suggests that empathy overcomes social barriers in a powerfully positive way. We might well imagine Aaron being acutely in touch with the little girl’s feelings, concerned that she was feeling what he himself might find unpalatable.
In simple terms, if we want children to help other children, we can see that empathy helps. We should want our children to help other children, so they are responsible citizens. It also helps us verify the status of their moral compass. The practice of empathy draws out observable helping behaviours where everyone is a winner.
“When we know how someone feels we are more likely to help them.”
Probably most significantly, the research shows that, through empathy, typical group boundaries can be transcended, simply by asking a child how another child seems to feel — no matter whether they are in the in-group or not. Children are not likely to feign politeness like adults do, especially when they know nobody is looking, but knowing someone is feeling poorly appears to be a powerful influencer.
Another study showed how empathy in adults helps them value the person in need of help more. If children like Aaron are any indication, they can empathize more meaningfully when others are feeling negative emotions.
Teaching empathy to a child can be as simple as asking them frequently how they think other children (or animals or adults) feel. This is an attempt not only to connect them with someone else’s feelings, but to connect them with their own feelings, for our own feelings are always important to us.
Teaching empathy to children is powerful in their development, because empathy is shown to transcend social biases all humans struggle to overcome. The interaction between Aaron and the little girl epitomizes this. And, because empathy is also a vehicle for empowering a person along a forward trajectory, it gives back to the person giving it out. What parent would not want this for their child?
When children are empathic like Aaron was they show kindness, care, and compassion that overcomes barriers to helping. They experience a virtuous feel-good power emanate from within themselves. This begins to occur even as a child asks how another person feels.
Isn’t this something we would want for our children and grandchildren to experience? Isn’t it worth modeling? And isn’t it a great idea to ask children how other children could be feeling as we nurture empathy within them?
Sierksma, J., Thijs, J., & Verkuyten, M., “In-group bias in children’s intention to help can be overpowered by inducing empathy” in British Journal of Developmental Psychology. © 2014, British Psychological Society. Vol. 33. Issue 1. March 2015. pp. 45-56. DOI: 10.1111/bjdp.12065.
Batson, C.D., Turk, C.L., Shaw, L.L., & Klien, T.R. “Information function of empathic emotion: Learning that we value the other’s welfare” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1995, 68, pp. 300 – 311. DOI: 10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2060.
Information on the author of the article:
Steve Wickham is a pastor, school chaplain, and counselor, holding degrees in science, divinity, and counseling. He is married and has four children, three of whom are adults.