When babies are first born, their needs are paramount. In the animal kingdom, looking out for number one is the key to staying alive. But for our success as individuals — be it socially, emotionally, academically, or professionally — that infant ego needs a big-time parental intervention.
In the first years of our children’s lives, parents must ensure kids understand their priorities and how they fit in among family and peers. This means parents face a two-part challenge. First, we must actively nurture empathy. Then, we have to teach children what to do with that emotional intelligence. We have to teach them how to respond to others with kindness.
Building empathy begins now
Though an infant is oblivious to the world around them at first, their senses soon begin feeding them information and they become aware of those closest to them. The behaviors they see in their family play a role in how their brains grow.
To nurture empathy, it’s important to practice it yourself. With very young kids, a simple game of peek-a-boo can be one way to demonstrate your empathetic prowess. Notice how baby’s attention shifts away from you periodically. Think of this as a processing pause, a little ‘me’ time between the gleeful squealing. Let them zone out for a moment, and when their attention turns back to you, say something like,
“Well, hello again, you, welcome back.” By engaging your baby on her terms, and backing off when she disengages, you are demonstrating a keen ability to offer what another person wants and needs from you.
Older kids respond well to a narrative, making storytelling useful in empathy building. Book time presents opportunities for characters to model behavior that can then be discussed by you and your child in a playspace free of real-world high-octane emotion. “That boy was mean to the other kids, wasn’t he? Why do you think that was?”
Allow your child time to answer. Then give your response, “I think it’s only because the boy was sad. What could the other kids have done or said when the boy was mean that would have made him feel better?”
Their stories about school days and playdates present rich opportunities, too. Ask questions about motivation when they tell you about the sad boy or mean girl. “What did you do to cheer him up? What could you do next time to make him smile? Think about a time you were mad and a mean way you behaved. Do you think your sister liked it?”
With these last exercises, we’ve moved into the second phase of our parenting challenge, turning emotional intelligence into kindness. By asking questions about the cause of the disruptive behavior, and creating a story of what led there, we let our kids observe emotions from a distance. When we make this a regular part of our communication, we practice behaviors that can become habits as our children mature.