Disclaimer: Teaching empathy is not a skill only for boys. The tips I share could be used regardless of gender. I specifically choose to focus on boys because I have a boy and can share from personal experience.
“I hope he respects women,” was the first thing I said to the ultrasound technician and my husband when I found out my baby’s gender. They both laughed and probably thought dismissively, “Oh, the things pregnant ladies say.” I emphasized, “I know you are laughing but I am serious.”
Now that he is a toddler, I worry about helping him have a fine balance between being “sensitive” (a bad word in boy code) to others when he is older and navigating the often brutal culture of boyhood that empathizes shaming. Boys are more likely to feel pressure from peers and adults to act like a man (That didn’t hurt. Toughen up. You’re crying like a girl. Don’t be a sissy. Man-up.) and thus suppress feelings of empathy to tease with peers.
When I shared my thoughts about the importance of teaching empathy with my husband, he said “Isn’t that more appropriate for later, like when he is a teenager…that is a pretty complex emotion.” My definitive answer, “No. We need to build the foundation for empathy NOW.”
My husband was right that empathy is a complex emotion…it is the ability distinguish self from other and to take a view from the other’s perspective. Empathy is especially hard in the ego-centric toddler’s world. However, research recognizes that children who have secure attachment by having their emotional needs met at home are more likely to develop a strong sense of empathy.
Why is this so important? Empathy is recognized as one of the most critical 21st century skills because it strengthens interpersonal relationships, yields higher happiness, encourages team-work, cultivates persistent problem-solving, breeds courage, and offers skills for by-stander intervention.
Here is what ignites my passion for this: males are more likely to perpetuate violence against each other and women. I want my son to take a stand against bullying among peers and help end violence against women.
Following is a list of techniques for teaching empathy that we practice in our home:
7 Tips for Teaching Boys Empathy Early:
- Reading: I am intentional to add some books into regular reading that deal with emotions boys may struggle with like sadness, anger, or fear. We do not always read word for word. Instead, we talk about what is going on in the pictures and point out emotions or actions. In Anna Dewdney’s Llama Llama and the Bully Goat, we talk about how Gilroy Goat is being mean and how it makes the others feel. We celebrate when Gilroy becomes friends with Llama Llama.
- Model Behavior and Mentor: there are lots of hugs and kisses with each other, friends, other children, and between mommy and daddy (Yuck!). We also point out situations that call for empathy. Sometimes, when another child is crying at school, we ask to hug or offer assistance. I have been told by staff and other parents that my son does this with other kids throughout the school day. When I hear this, I tell him what I heard to encourage this behavior. On the other hand, if I hear about a bad day he has had or witness him in wrong-doing towards others, I take an opportunity to talk about how his actions may have affected the other person.
- Manners: “Thank you” and “Please” are always a priority – rather than just receiving gifts and demanding actions. We also recognize aloud when our child is being helpful and/or sharing. My husband and I also acknowledge this aloud when we do something for each other so our son can witness this as a model.
- Language: every day we ask each other, “How was your day?” We also ask follow up questions to find out what is important. Now, at two, he asks us about our day. Also, we intentionally call strangers we met “neighbors” to emphasize a sense of community (I know that eventually I will have to address stranger danger…).
- Allow Emotions: we do not shame. My husband and I call each other out if we do shame. We allow crying if something hurts. We also pay attention to his body language and if it is strong, we ask about his feelings, and validate them.
- Encourage Rough Housing and Pretend Play: rough housing with dad AND mom is important. It allows opportunities to experience intense emotions and regulate them. Pretend play allows our son the opportunity to put himself in someone else’s shoes, try on new roles (taking care of baby dolls, toy pets, etc. is allowed), and problem solve from a different perspective.
- Schedule Intentional Play Dates: I am educated, white and middle-class and so is my husband. We are a two-parent, two-income, traditional, heterosexual couple. My son will primarily be influenced by this. We typically socialize with like-minded, similar folks. In order for my son to grow up and understand other perspectives, it is critical for my husband and I consciously choose to invite others who do not fit our mold into our home and make choices to include them in our everyday. Scheduling intentional play-dates with other genders, races, ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, and family types is our responsibility to help our son understand and experience different perspectives. If we are expecting our son to stretch to meet others where they are, we need to do this too.
Resources to Teach Empathy (Part 2) featured at the end of March will include a great list of parent guides, children’s books, and curricula links.
How do you teach your kids empathy? Do you have any tips to add? Share with us in the comments!