Empathy: Walking in others shoes

“Don’t judge a man before you have walked a mile in his shoes”

This ancient Cherokee saying nails what empathy is all about in today’s world!

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Empathy: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

In today’s dog-eat-dog world, where success has to be seized by any means, fair or foul, having empathy to your fellow beings is becoming increasingly rare. Especially when it comes to teens today. Any normal teen is sullen, selfish and only looks to self-gratification. Add the push from parents to succeed at any cost and be a step in front of your peers, makes them lack this very important trait. This is also the reason that bullying cases are at an all-time high!

A couple of weeks back, in one of the children’s school parent group chats, one of the parents had posted that her niece, also in Secondary 1 had run away from home and school! Luckily she was found a day later and safe, but when probed to the reason for running away, she cited bullying as the main reason. After that, pretty everyone, including yours truly had bullying episodes to share. Both BB & GG were bullied in primary school, for very different reasons which I don’t want to share now, but from what I understood it has now become so common that it’s almost like a rite of passage!

But why are we raising children who don’t know how to relate to their peers? Why can’t children today ‘walk in their friend’s shoes’ and understand them? Once this happens, this will reduce bullying to a large extent, in my opinion, as most bullies are those who are probably threatened by the thought of someone or something which represents the person and so they bully them before they can be bullied, or so they think!

Teens who don’t know how to be emphatic tend to be more self-absorbed and less caring towards, not only others, but also towards themselves. So they tend to base life and it’s experiences on the the theme of ‘Whats in it for me?” So excelling in any field, academics or sports or other pursuits is not because they want to, but because they gain something out of it, maybe recognition within the community or awards or just because they want to please their parents. I’ve seen so many cases where children join courses only because their parents told them to or because it is was a prestigious one. A few years after completing the course, they are off doing something completely different! And when such children fail, as life is wont to do, they become miserable and some even take extreme steps!

Teens, who are emphatic, on the other hand, are better at dealing with failure because they see it not a failure against themselves, but more as a learning journey and learn from the process, which stand in good stead for them as they move on in life.

So what do we do with our teens who are probably not as emphatic as we’d like them to be? There are many websites which have excellent tips on how to teach empathy. I’ve summarized a few here:

Allow the child to grow emotionally: As a parent, we love our children, but do we show it to them? Make children very secure about their home environment and let them be very secure in their parents and caregiver’s love and support. When they are secure, they are more disposed to be being caring about others and are sensitive to others’ needs.

Teach children to be resilient: Let them learn from mistakes and allow them to bounce back from distress. As parents, we want to cushion our children against all distress and so we don’t allow them to be pained. Let them be resilient and learn about the realities of life, this will allow them to learn of the others, who may not be as fortunate as they are and so learn to empathise with them.

Model emphatic behavior: A parent is the first teacher in a child’s life and most children model their behavior on what they see their parents, grandparents and caregivers do each day. When the adults in their lives live a life which has empathy for others, it becomes automatic behavior for the child.

Teach always: Every day, every moment is a teaching moment for a parent. So during the child’s daily life, when situations occur, the parent should use it as a teaching moment and teach and allow the child a chance to learn what is good and bad. This also means the parent needs to talk to the child, at his level to get him to understand what is right and what is wrong.

Walk a mile in the other’s shoes: Allow the child or teen to volunteer as often as possible so that they can ‘walk a mile in the other’s shoe’ and try and see the other side of the fence. This way, behavior is humanized and more real to the child, which allows them to open their eyes to the circumstances of others, often which is not in their hands and allows them to respond with empathy to others.

The above are some ways a parent can teach empathy to their child/teen. A wonderful sentence I read while reading about empathy sums up this topic beautifully.

Teaching your child/ teen empathy is like turning their “mirrors” into “windows”. A mirror symbolizes self-centredness, where the child/teen sees only themselves and care only for their own feelings. Windows symbolize empathy, where the child/teen is able to look beyond their own needs and put themselves in another person’s position.

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