5 Ways We Undermine Empathy Development in Children

5 Ways We Undermine Empathy Development in Children

Big fat tears rolled down my 3-year-old’s cheeks. Her loud cries were jarring against the picturesque background we’d found ourselves in.

Her older sister had wandered down the creek bed to find a tyre swing. Such a happy discovery for a child, and of course everyone wanted a turn. She’d been swinging for a while and the others were getting impatient, but Miss 3 was not ready to relinquish her seat, and she was letting us know.

5 Ways We Undermine Empathy Development in Children

We didn’t force her to get off, just empathised while the other girls looked on. ‘I want to keep swinging!’, she continued to cry.

And then Miss 6, who was waiting to have her turn next, interrupted. ‘It’s ok, she can stay on!’ she assured, and then proceeded to push her while they both giggled together.

Oh my heart.

It’s not that she didn’t want a go herself. She loves swings and she couldn’t wait for her turn, but she felt for her sister. She knew that this was really hard for her, that she was very upset, that waiting is harder when you’re 3 than when you’re 6. She empathised.5 Ways We Undermine Empathy Development in Children

I often hear that children are selfish and that empathy is something we need to actively teach them. But the above scenario is not an isolated incident. Children demonstrate empathy from a young age.

When my children were babies they would cry or mimic facial expressions when their sisters were upset. If I hurt myself, my 1-year-old will ask me in a concerned voice ‘you ‘kay?’ and lovingly pat my cheek. When her 3-year-old sister is crying she will call for me, ‘Mummy, sissy crying! She needs you!’, while waiting with her until I arrive. Whenever one of them is offered something they will immediately ask for one for each of their sisters. Just yesterday Miss 1 fell and hit her head while playing with her big sister, and Miss 6 said regretfully ‘Oh I wish it had been me instead’. They care for each other and empathise with one another daily.

This leads me to believe that empathy is an innate human quality and not something we need to teach our children so much as nurture and protect while it grows. But maybe one of the reasons that children are seen as selfish is because instead of supporting empathy development, we actually hinder it with some common parenting practices.

Research suggests that our own experiences and feelings distort our ability to be empathetic towards others, and this seems to be exactly what we do to children. We intervene in social situations to punish, shame, dismiss, praise, force, and many more things that cause either positive or negative feelings, leading children to be so focused on their own emotions and reactions that they are no longer able to empathise with others. We step in and control situations, or lay down rules, instead of allowing children to learn from social interactions.  We shut down opportunities for children to feel empathy, which in turn leads us to believe they are selfish, and then we decide they need to be taught to be empathetic.

Maybe it’s a whole lot simpler than that. Maybe we should just stop messing with empathy development in the first place.

5 Ways We Undermine Empathy Development in Children

1. Forcing apologies

5 Ways We Undermine Empathy Development in Children

Firstly, the whole idea of forced apologies is bizarre. Does anyone actually want an apology that isn’t genuine? Didn’t think so. By forcing children to apologise we are not teaching them anything. You can’t make anyone feel sorry. Instead, what likely happens is that they are too busy thinking about their own embarrassment and shame to be able to feel any genuine remorse or empathy. They’re probably also running through some ideas about how not to get caught next time so they can avoid this scenario in the future. While it makes you feel good when your child says sorry, and you avoid the judgement of others, you’re really not cultivating genuine empathy so it’s time to reassess your priorities.

What to do instead: Empathise and talk about what happened without judgement! Encourage them to notice others feelings and needs… ‘You really wanted the toy that your friend had. It’s hard to wait your turn. It looks like she’s upset because she wanted to continue playing with it’. Empathy comes from being able to perceive another’s feelings and perspective, so model that for them. Then you can help them work out what to do next, and assist both parties to communicate their needs.

2.  Punishment and rewards

Most people believe that in order to raise ‘good’ kids you need to maintain control over them by punishing them when they do something wrong, and rewarding or praising them when they do something right. This is not true. In fact, it’s extremely unhelpful if you want to raise confident, kind, and empathetic kids.

“…one experiment after another has demonstrated that rewards are not only ineffective—they’re often counterproductive. For example, researchers have found that children who are rewarded for doing something nice are less likely to think of themselves as nice people. Instead, they tend to attribute their behaviour to the reward. Then, when there’s no longer a goody to be gained, they’re less likely to help than are kids who weren’t given a reward in the first place. They’re also less likely to help than they themselves used to be. After all, they’ve learned that the point of coming to someone’s aid is just to get a reward.” -Alfie Kohn

Punishment, rewards, and praise completely undermine empathy development, in that they very effectively turn the focus onto what the child is feeling. They kill intrinsic motivation and encourage egocentric thinking. Instead of noticing how their actions affect others, children are concerned with imposed consequences or rewards. If you hit your brother and are sent to time out while your brother gets to continue playing it’s highly unlikely you’re going to be sitting there empathising with him. No, you’re going to be resenting him and the person who is enforcing this punishment and working out a way to get even. Rewards and praise, although more palatable, are no better. Both seek to influence and control children.

What to do instead: Educate yourself on unconditional parenting. Alfie Kohn’s book is a fabulous place to start. You might also find these posts helpful:
Parenting Without Punishment: What DO You do?
What is Respectful Parenting?
Unconditional Parenting
Freedom Is Not Conditional

3. Forced sharing

The whole sharing thing that parents seem to be preoccupied with is very strange. ‘Sharing’ seems to mean immediately giving up an object whenever another child wants to use it. When does this happen in adult life? If you own something, you don’t have to share it if you don’t want to. If someone wants to borrow something you’re using, they ask, and you tell them they can have it when you’re done. So why on earth do we have these odd rules for children? The concept of ‘sharing’ as it is often enforced with children, bears no resemblance to adult life. It’s also another way we hinder empathy development.

Research has shown that when children share autonomously they display greater happiness than when forced to share. Isn’t that what we want? For them to share out of the goodness in their heart and feel good about it? But instead of sharing authentically, they’re often forced, causing them to feel resentful and mistreated rather than generous. Or else they do share naturally and then we jump in and praise them for it, trying again to control them and reinforce behaviour, which has the opposite effect.

5 Ways We Undermine Empathy Development in Children

“…young children who were often praised by their parents for displays of generosity tended to be slightly less generous on an everyday basis than other children were—again, just like kids who received tangible rewards. Every time they heard “Good sharing!” or “I’m so proud of you for helping,” they became a little less interested in sharing or helping. Those actions came to be seen not as something valuable in their own right but as something the children had to do to get that reaction again from an adult. In this case, it was generosity that became merely a means to an end.” -Alfie Kohn

What to do instead: Let ‘sharing’ happen naturally! There’s no need to praise it. If you want to comment you could just say something about what you see, “You gave your friend the doll. She looks happy to be playing with it”. Again, turning the attention to how the other person is feeling. Instead of forcing a child to share, tell them to reply that they will let the other child know when they are finished playing with something so that they can use it next. If a child is having trouble waiting their turn, just empathise! It’s ok to be upset. Waiting is really hard when you haven’t developed a clear sense of time yet. You don’t need to ‘fix’ it by making the other child ‘share’ with them.

4. Competition

Competition is detrimental. I know, people don’t want to believe it. There’s a deeply held belief that competition is healthy, builds character, is good for self-esteem, is enjoyable, and gives children a certain drive to succeed. Research, on the other hand, shows many detrimental effects of competition.

“Competition is to self-esteem as sugar is to teeth.” –Alfie Kohn

In terms of empathy development, when we pit children against each other in competition, some must win and some must lose. How can that nurture kindness and empathy? It seems like a no-brainer.

“One study demonstrated conclusively that competitive children were less empathetic than others; another study showed that competitive children were less generous.” –Alfie Kohn

What to do instead: Don’t compare children or encourage them to compete. This only causes envy, disappointment, and disconnection. Instead, enjoy activities where everyone works together to achieve a goal. Be a team! Err…just not one that competes against other teams.

5 Ways We Undermine Empathy Development in Children

5. Dismissing feelings

To understand another person’s feelings, we must first understand our own. We can’t do that if our emotional intelligence has been stunted in childhood. If you dismiss a child’s feelings, it is difficult for them to learn how to regulate them, or even be aware of exactly what they are feeling. And if you can’t empathise with how they are feeling, how can you expect them to?

“When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not to join their chaos.” -L.R. Knost

What to do instead: Accept all feelings! Don’t require them to minimise them for your comfort. Empathise and help them through them instead. You might also find this post helpful.

Children are kind, empathetic, loving, and generally all round awesome people. All we need to do is support that, not hinder it!

5 Ways We Undermine Empathy Development in Children

Miss 6 got her turn on the swing, and it was all the sweeter having not been at the expense of her sister’s feelings.

 

 

 

5 Ways We Undermine Empathy Development in Children

27 thoughts on “5 Ways We Undermine Empathy Development in Children

  1. Summed up brilliantly! Thankyou so much for the encouragement! It’s so true… I find that when I am empathetic when my children are having an argument that it is often all it takes to break the gridlock and move forward… and it always changes the energy in the situation to positivity, joy, and ease…

  2. I found Alfie Kohn a few years ago, originally lent to me by a vegan mother of two at a Steiner kindy. (One step closer to the homeschooling decision- good heavens what a nightmare of virtue-signalling SJW two-shoes. I digress..)
    I read his book and insisted my husband read it.
    We attempted everything within it for about six months, and felt very ‘zen’ about such implementation in spite of growing suspicions that things weren’t quite as natural as before. Our stupendously curious boy of four, after the first two months, became hell on earth without his usual strict boundaries. We maintained the effort, and things became worse. After six months or so I went back to boundary-setting and my natural state of parenting, where he knew precisely where he stood, and his sweet behaviour came back, and frustrations backed right off, order was restored.

    This could once again be the difference between raising boys versus girls.

    I realised the name Kohn was as realistic a name as any ever given to a book on child psychology as ever there was.
    His tribe invented psychology to better figure out how to manipulate. I for one wish I’d never read it.
    When he does good work I praise my boy- I can’t help myself. Why should I not say a simple ‘Good work boy-o’ if he’s made such an effort to do a good job? It’s truly ridiculous. That mentality, of no-credit where credit is due, if that credit comes spontaneously because the heart has been delighted is simply unnatural, and bad things happen when the opposite of nature starts creeping in.

    Equally, that over-effort of “Good sharing Tommy!” makes me cringe as well. Cultural Marxism at its most vile. (And we all know who invented Marxism… don’t we?)
    (We should, to avoid such horror again.)
    Kohn’s ‘studies’ may be based in fact, or they may be full of manipulated data to make unsuspecting folks buy their snake-oil. I can’t say, but I’ve read of old Scot tribes who fought to the death based on nothing more than a good word from their chieftain, and studies in workplaces where the well-praised, hardest-working people were twice as motivated as their perceived-to-be less valued control group who never received any praise at all. I don’t want my children doing either thing above to be frank, but I do want them to know without ANY DOUBT when they have made my heart burst with love and pride.
    I rant on this subject because, having a primary school teacher mother, I know what zero-praise is all about. I did everything perfectly, was reading early, and still, never a good word. I perceived this to mean I was still doing something wrong, tried even harder, and burned myself out by 17, and went underground, where people were amazed at my achievements- but it was too late by then. My esteem-compass was faulty and it took twenty years to fix. My mum followed the Tribe’s last word of authority on everything. Their perceived authority was disastrous for three of her four children. Look at society- the good bits still remain IN SPITE of authority telling folks what to do. Not because of-.

    Yesterday The Boy did something gloriously kind for his sister, I forget what- he is kind and generous on a daily basis and the two get on as best friends. But this made such an impression on my heart that tears sprang to my eyes. He asked why I had tears, was I sad?- and I truthfully answered that no- I was so happy at his kindness that I had turned in to a daft old woman full of happiness and love for him. He gave me a hug and his sister joined in.
    Happiness is here alright.

    • Interesting perspective! At the end of the day, we all have to do what works best for our families. Thanks for sharing your experience. I’ll keep it in mind as I read his book when I finally get to it… A good reminder not to take any one book as Gospel, and continue thinking, evaluating and improving.

      • Vanessa, I would be sorry to offend you if I hadn’t done my research on who came up with the terms ‘sexist’ and racist’, and also came up with the idea of ‘feminism’ and the vile mutations of our once great culture that now run rife amongst our dying excuse for one.
        More research needed for you, in order to understand what I am actually saying. A good place to start would be ‘Tavistock’. ‘Educateyourself.org’ has a decent enough rundown on the gist of it all. Read carefully, it’s all in there if you ever care enough to realise important core truths about what’s happening to our society.
        Good luck.

        • Cate, you are spot on. On another note, I was never so proud as when my granddaughters, 11 and 14, chucked their soccer “participation trophies” in the thrift store bin. Competition is in the workplace. We have to strive for betterment at an early age as everyone DOES NOT win in competition for a job.

    • Hey, thanks for sharing your perspective!
      However, as far as I know, the “no punshments, no rewards” approach encouragges the praising of efforts, no matter if they led to success or fail. And I think if your mom has done this, it should have worked…
      Although, I don’t see in any book the advice to give up boundaries… that’s crazy!

      • Hey, thanks for sharing yours too.
        ‘No punishments’ might work for some, but I assure you, healthy little boys need some sort of dissuasion/punishment because they seek the boundary, their curiosity is relentless.
        We encourage curiosity 100% here, and when we lifted punishment it was madness. (Take a moment to look at modern Europe to see what No Punishment is creating in our old culture. This is intended.)
        My boy couldn’t understand how dangerous getting out of the front gate could be for example- we were flatting on a main road.

        During that phase he also took an indelible pen and drew a ‘man’ on the brand new washing machine. I had to physically stop my husband from smacking his backside (glad I did, he’d read the book and had stopped smacking at that point) and I ended up writing the date at the base of the picture, it’s still there and we love it. But THAT wasn’t a dangerous bit of mischief.
        A three yr old boy has very little- if any- verbal reasoning powers against an instinct to explore.
        Punishment isn’t always necessary, and doesn’t need to be violent.
        There is another way with girls perhaps, but with a healthy boy, to secure a strong man, punishment for dangerous (and annoying) transgressions is needed to set firm boundaries of socially acceptable behaviour, and very importantly, personal safety.

        I used counting to three, and at three (if he chose to continue the experiment) *something* would happen, usually confiscation of Lego. There were tears sometimes, but he paid attention to the message.
        Reasoning rarely if ever worked when he was small.
        Even now, at 8, he needs the usual count if he’s out of decent behaviour, like climbing on the back of a moving delivery truck after being asked not to by me AND the delivery man.
        He missed out on his home-made chocolate ice-cream bar for that.
        He weighed up the threat of punishment to the thrill of riding the truck. His choice, but he needed to know something would likely happen for the dangerous choice.

        He needs to take risks, but equally he needs to know how to weigh up risk.

        That’s where I come in. If it’s a stupid or dangerous boundary he wants to test, I’ll let my wholly natural, traditional motherly instincts make that distinction (through punishment if he ignores my directive) for his own benefit. Kohn and other well-meaning liberals, suggest I don’t.

        Perhaps a more caring modern mother would say, ‘Hey son, good not-cracking-your-skull-open.’

        In my humble but obviously forthright opinion, many men these days are effeminate, undisciplined, ineffectual, weakened, brainwashed, pathetic (in its original semantic sense), metrosexually green-washed, liberal whiners.
        My husband was soundly thrashed with a wooden spoon as a boy by his olde-worlde, old-fashioned mother when he pushed his luck too far, and has excellent discipline across the board. His diet was exceptionally nutrient-dense ancestral, and his childhood happy. He had a healthy respect for women, and still does. Women love him, men respect his honour.
        All the other boyfriends I’ve had in the past were raised liberally, and lasted two years at the most. Just not strong enough to make the grade in any sense- financially, physically, emotionally. Not good breeding material.

        Modern liberal ‘reformation of the wheel’ is really bad for everyone within our culture, but that is the intention.

          • I was wondering when you’d get cross with my opinions. Seeing as it’s your blog I’ll back down. I won’t be back. I respected your opinions so much until Kohn came in to it.
            I hope one day you might see what I’m on about.
            You’ve inspired me to do things I’d not have thought about doing, like making outfits from scratch with my boy. It’s been worth it for that alone.
            Good luck with everything.
            -C.

  3. Again, a brilliant article. First, thank you so much for this Blog. It helps
    me staying true to my values when doubts arise, mostly just because we are doing everything so different from other families. I love, love, love your blog and it has been extremely helpful more than once.
    What is your opinion on competitive games like chess, card games etc.? One wins, one loses. Almost all traditional games share this basic structure. Do you play them or not? Thank you.

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  5. ” If you hit your brother and are sent to time out while your brother gets to continue playing it’s highly unlikely you’re going to be sitting there empathising with him. No, you’re going to be resenting him and the person who is enforcing this punishment and working out a way to get even. ” This is why bullies blame their victims! So, so many great points in this article. Thank you!!

  6. I could not have said my beliefs better myself…I never forced “sorry” from my children, nor children in my care, because, at that specific moment, they were not! Why teach children to be hypocrites? As for sharing…do we share our cars, homes or best clothes without having strong feelings? Age appropriate discussion (promoting empathy) or distraction work well.

  7. I have a boy and a girl very close in age (he’s just 6 and she’s turning 5 ). I have parented the same with both of them and I have found that my daughter has a high degree of innate empathy (and has since she was tiny) and my son just doesn’t. I don’t think that’s a gender thing, but it’s definitely not nurture so I have to conclude that it’s just personality. Empathy is definitely an innate human trait but some will have it to a much higher degree than others.
    I loved you book recommendations by the way. So many titles to add to my list!
    All the best,
    Peach

  8. I have to say I don’t necessarily agree with the no competition point. I get that if we are raising our kids with a fixed mindset, competition is terrible. But, with a growth mindset, competition encourages development. The school my daughter went to focused on building a growth mindset and one of the things they actively used to teach this was how to win and lose in competitions. They taught kids how to congratulation each other, how to encourage each other, and how to turn a loss into an opportunity to grow. There was no lying about loss and why they lost. Instead, they actively explored why they lost and developed strategies to improve.
    The reality is, if you enter a job one day, you will be competing. You will have to know how to channel competition to make you grow as a person. Avoiding it or mishandling it in childhood is missing an opportunity to grow.

    • You compete to get the job, sure, but once you’re in it, collaboration and teamwork and sharing ideas is much more important.
      Why should success be meaningful only if someone else fails?

      • But then why shouldn’t one’s own success be measured by the highest standards one sets for themselves..?
        Perhaps this “Don’t try and succeed in case you make someone feel inferior,” PC mindset slips neatly into the ‘cultural marxism’ category. It’s insanity- political correctness gone insane.
        I once heard that women at a certain school were no longer permitted to bring home-made baking to the school bake sale. Why? Because some mothers didn’t have time to bake, or were no good at it, so NO ONE was allowed to shame them by bringing home-made cakes etc.
        It was a BAKE SALE.
        It’s like that line in ‘The Incredible’s’ from the weirdo character ‘Syndrome’, who states, “When EVERYone is a special, NO one will be.”
        Cultural marxism is a very dangerous, very slippery slope, which our well-meaning culture slides further down with every modern publication, film, tv show, and radio broadcast that is designed purposely to tug at our brainwashed heartstrings. If you can have brainwashed heartstrings. You know what I mean I’m sure.

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  12. I disagree. There are plenty times an adult needs to share. First off, in a room mate situation you might need to share the bathroom and shower. If your room mate says “hey I need to shower too” it means hurry up and don’t take your time, more than one person deserves to shower. At the gym, there are thirty minute time limits on equipment if someone is waiting. Yes. You have to learn to share or you are a jerk.

    Secondly (in the forced apology section ) I hate when parents say “you wanted that toy so you took it from that girl. Look, now she is upset” or whatever supposedly neutral language garbage that is – it isn’t neutral if you are the one that got hurt – you are asking them to observe someone’s emotion with out pointing out the connection that THEIR OWN actions caused the other person to be hurt. You’re telling them to be empathetic that someone is sad, without asking them to take any responsibility for the fact that their actions CAUSED said sadness. I know adults who still don’t grasp that.

    • Actually you don’t HAVE to share with a roommate. You hopefully do because you’re polite and courteous. Those behaviours come from genuine feelings of empathy… which forced sharing doesn’t promote.

      In the second example you gave you literally explained how an action contributed to a feeling in another person…

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