How Do You Help A 3 Year Old Develop Empathy Empathy – Foundation Virtue in Spirituality and Parenting

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Empathy – Foundation Virtue in Spirituality and Parenting

I recently read a parenting article about nurturing virtues like kindness, honesty, and generosity within children. The author identified the core virtue – the virtue from which all others spring – as empathy. Our ability to understand how others feel, what hurts or helps them, is the foundation for all our virtuous actions toward others.

As someone interested in both spirituality and parenting, I find this interesting to contemplate, as empathy is also the root virtue identified in most religious and spiritual traditions. The Golden Rule, ‘treat others as you would like to be treated’, is specified in some form in every tradition I can think of.

So what exactly is empathy? Thinking about what it really means to develop it in children gives many clues. There’s a difference between telling your two-year-old not to bite because he’ll get a break versus helping him understand that it hurts the other person. There’s a difference between telling your five-year-old not to call someone a name because it’s “not nice” versus showing her how it makes the other person sad. And there’s a difference between teaching your interloper not to tease someone because “it’s wrong” versus because it might cause real pain to the victim.

Developing empathy requires moving beyond punishment, social mores, or even ideas of right and wrong. It requires us to take the time to ask questions like ‘how do you feel when someone bites/calls you names/teas you?’ The essence of empathy is our ability to feel or understand someone else’s pain as if it were our own.

I often think of this when a story comes out about a bunch of teenagers or teens bullying a peer (often online) to the point of suicide or near-suicide. Parents of the abusers are often shocked, saying the usual ‘He/she is such a good kid, straight A student, volunteers at church’ etc. And that’s probably all true. But it is in the nature of teenagers to rebel and test boundaries, so if their “good” behavior is entirely based on fear of punishment, or wanting to please adults, or a sense of social justice, they are destined to want to break and break. defy those expectations ever. And they are also naturally self-absorbed, engaged in one of the most intense life transitions there is. So unless they have a strong basis for truly considering the feelings of others, too often empathy will not emerge naturally.

The same is true for us adults, and is perfectly illustrated by the difference between what I would call “moral kindness” and true compassion. Most religions, in their form of the Golden Rule, link adherence to some form of retribution, be it damnation, bad karma, or eternal illusion. Or, they present visions of what it means to be the “perfect spiritual man”—the saint, the pious, the enlightened. So if we are religiously or spiritually inclined, we try to toe the moral line, either out of fear or out of guilt. Anyway, we don’t necessarily feel true empathy.

Developing true empathy requires a combination of self-awareness and attentiveness to others. We must truly be present enough in our encounters to feel what another feels, and aware enough of our own inner workings to let go of any attachments we have to judgments or outcome. Then we will feel a natural and real connection to others, and this is what empathy really is. Connectivity is the reason so many spiritual traditions include practices designed to inspire compassion and empathy. To say ‘we are all connected’ is philosophical, but to actually feel our oneness, to experience it, is the essence of personal spirituality and mysticism.

So whether it is in our children or in ourselves, there is great value in looking at what really motivates kind behavior. Empathy is not about making excuses for others, saying ‘they can’t help it’ when they wrong us. But it’s about feeling what they feel, trying to understand it and feeling a connection without condemnation or martyrdom. Empathy is perhaps the greatest spiritual gift we can give ourselves, our children, and the world.

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