“I’d like you to close your eyes,” I often say at workshops that I facilitate across the country. “Now visualize the kind of adults you hope your children become.”
I add that I am not interested in them conjuring up logistical visions, for example, where they hope their children go to school or the kind of job they hope they get. Instead, I ask them to think about the character traits they hope their children have as adults.
I have probably done this exercise more than one hundred times over the past decade. Without fail, whether I’m in Saskatoon or Chicago, parents hope their children are compassionate, courageous, and empathetic adults. We may not agree on much in this country right now, but raising caring children appears to be a consensus.
However, as the saying goes, “hope is not a plan.” Even before the current political season Harvard University’s Making Caring Common project highlighted a “rhetoric/reality gap” that children are quick to name. The report found, for instance, that nearly eighty percent of youth think their parents are more concerned with achievement and happiness than helping others. Youth were three times more likely to agree than disagree with the statement, “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”
There is, of course, nothing wrong with achievement and happiness. Nonetheless, part of growing up is learning how to respond when these interests collide with the needs of others. Empathy is one of the core “pro-social skills” that enable young people to build community across differences, navigate ethical challenges, and put the collective good ahead of their own self-interest when it matters.
The political backdrop gives the task of raising empathetic children even greater urgency. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently released a report documenting 867 bias-related incidents in just the 10 days following the November election. Teachers describe an increase in the use of slurs and derogatory language between students.
We might be wise to take a deep breath, close our eyes, find our way back to that collective vision of raising empathetic young people. When we do, let’s dig into ways to funnel that empathy into courageous action, and make a concrete plan to get there.
Empathy is not just about being nice; it matters for a number of important reasons:
- Empathy catalyzes courage. A recent study found that early adolescents with higher levels of empathy were more likely to be a powerful bystander and stand up to a bully in defense of someone outside of their friend group.
- Empathy makes us happy. People with empathy have stronger social relationships, are better equipped to collaborate, and thrive in team environments. All of these traits make us social animals quite happy.
- Empathy helps us solve collective problems. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes spurs compassionate problem solving that is central to democracy. How do we live together in better ways? How do we find creative solutions to collective problems?
We’ve written before about the development of empathy in young children, but what youth? How do we ensure that throughout adolescence our teens are widening their “circle of concern?”
We used to think that empathy was fully formed in childhood. But as our understanding of the adolescent brain has grown, we now know that the complex set of skills that enable young people to consider things from another perspective, identify emotions in self and others, and manage emotional responses, continue to grow and develop throughout the teen years.
Empathy is also not, of course, something that you learn in a single lesson. It is messy and learned over time in the context of growing and changing relationships. Funneling empathy into courageous action is even more complicated – but worth all of our efforts – it demands that we learn how to bring our inner experiences into conversation with power, accountability, and reciprocity.
Brains on, feelings on
Empathy isn’t a single skill or single circuit in the brain. For example, so-called “cognitive empathy,” or the ability to consider something from someone else’s perspective, is seated in the prefrontal cortex and actually begins rising in adolescence. This helps explain why you can enjoy quite sophisticated conversations with young people who are willing to consider various viewpoints and explore their own perspective and lens as well.
On the other hand, “affective empathy,” or the ability to identify and respond to someone else’s feelings, is seated in the limbic brain, the brain’s emotional center. While the foundation of affective empathy is built in early childhood, there are changes during adolescence as well. According to the same study, the most marked change is in young men, who experience a temporary decline in affective empathy between the ages of thirteen and sixteen. Of course teasing out the biological and social reasons for this decline is complicated and contested. Most importantly, there is no doubt that disrupting gender stereotypes in early childhood and adolescence are an important component of helping strengthen empathy in all kids. There is no doubt that emotion coaching is not just relevant in early childhood, but on through adolescence.
Mind the gaps
Parents need to be mindful of the ways that “empathy gaps” limit our capacity to recognize and respond to the emotions of others. These gaps are especially acute for people and groups of people we perceive as different from ourselves and are shaped in powerful, and often subconscious ways, by racial, gender, and class differences. The “racial empathy gap” was coined after a series of studies found evidence that white people assume that Black people feel less pain than white people do. Inducing empathy, or asking people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, does appear to lessen the impact though does not eliminate the gap. This effect has been demonstrated in children as young as seven years old. Gone unnamed and unchallenged, the racial empathy gap has cascading ramifications, from highly personal interactions in the halls of a high school to systemic disparities in healthcare and the criminal justice system. Too often, white parents especially, ignore the ways that race, culture, religion, and other categories of difference shape empathetic responses. By ignoring the ways that racism and white supremacy takes root in practices of caring, white parents lose the opportunity to disrupt it.
Disrupting white supremacy and building communities where everyone belongs requires a lot more than just raising empathetic kids. It requires transforming systems, policies and laws that uphold racism, feed those empathy gaps, and produce material inequities. In other words, empathy is essential but not enough. Tackling white supremacy everywhere it shows up and doing personal anti-oppression work models to teens that empathy is not just about attitudes and feelings about others, it can provide fuel for right action and collective change with others.
Mind the traps
Empathy involves “feeling with” other people. While essential to relationships, community, and justice, it also demands boundaries and balance to be healthy. According to Robin Stern at the Yale School of Emotional Intelligence, the art of empathy “requires paying attention to another’s needs without sacrificing one’s own.” Unending empathy that doesn’t pay attention to power dynamics and self care can lead to excessive vulnerability and emotional harm. For example, a teenager who is overly empathetic to an overbearing and controlling boyfriend is not healthy. Asking a Black student to take the perspective of racist curriculum instead of changing it is damaging. Asking a trans student to empathize with other people’s discomfort instead of prioritizing their own worth, value and safety is not okay.
In other words, help your teen pay attention to power dynamics and context as they build relationships and navigate systems. Empathy is healthy when the flow of empathy is reciprocal. When it isn’t, help your teen learn when and how to draw emotional and physical boundaries.
Tips for raising caring and courageous teens:
- Be sure that you teens know that you value empathy. Be sure to tell your teen that you value caring and empathy. Back up these words by recognizing when your teen is empathetic and considers the feelings of others or acts courageously for someone else.
- Teach your teen to identify feelings, needs, and power dynamics. Learning how to identify feelings and needs and advocate for themselves helps teens avoid “extractive” relationships where they are asked to consistently ignore their own needs to serve others.
- Actively disrupt stereotypes. Islamophobia, racism, sexism, transphobia, and homophobia don’t go away by not talking about them. Practice counteracting stereotypes through games, conversation, movies, books, and relationship building.
- Model high ethical standards and accountability to others. Taking responsibility for the impact of our actions, making courageous decisions even when they are hard, and doing the right thing even at a personal cost is all part of modeling high ethical standards.
- Empathize with your child. Tune in to your child’s emotional needs. This doesn’t mean rushing in to fix it. Instead try, “That sounds hard. Tell me more about it.” Watch Brene Brown’s video short on empathy for some ideas.
- Model relationship and solidarity with others. If you talk a lot about empathy but don’t demonstrate it, your teen will notice. Build mutual relationships with people who are different from you and work together on collective concerns. This is not about just “helping others” as this kind of framework can actually reinforce divisions and encourage “saviorism” mentality instead of a mutual flow of empathy.
- Help your teen understand that the world doesn’t revolve around them. Helping around the house, doing chores, volunteering time, and practicing gratitude are all simple ways to reinforce this.
- Use current events to start conversations. If you think your teens aren’t paying attention, you are likely wrong. Talk about the words and actions of favorite TV characters, politicians, and pundits.
- Give your teen time. Sometimes young people don’t appear to be empathetic because they are in fact, too overwhelmed by feelings. Young people can hide this by acting aloof or cold. Give your teen time and space to respond.
- Induce empathy. Actively ask your teen to take someone else’s perspective or to name how an action might make someone else feel.
- Name differences, name similarities, name power dynamics. Ignoring race, ability, or class simply gives stereotypes and prejudice more power. Talk about similarities and shared values without erasing differences and talk about power.
- Cultivate a diverse community and group of friends. Relationships matter. Young people who form friendships and relationships with people across race, ability, sexual orientation, ethnicity and other identities, naturally consider their perspectives more often.
- Stories matter. Keep literary fiction on the bookshelf, it helps young people understand and identify with other perspectives. Encourage young people to tell their stories and listen to others, watch films, and read read read.