3 Tips for Practicing Empathy With Your Kids

There's nothing easy about raising kids. We're all struggling and looking for new ways to build better relationships with them, help them find their way in the world, or simply deal with the tensions and tears of daily life.
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Parenting Expert on EmpathyRoman Krznaric

There's nothing easy about raising kids. We're all struggling and looking for new ways to build better relationships with them, help them find their way in the world, or simply deal with the tensions and tears of daily life.

The good news is that there's a skill we can all develop which can be a big help: empathy. Empathy is the imaginative act of stepping into the shoes of another person and looking at the world through his or her eyes. Ninety-eight percent of us have the ability to empathize wired into our brains. But we're not always great at putting our latent empathic abilities into practice.

What does empathy look like in reality? My boy-girl twins taught me what it's all about. When they were around one-and-a-half, before their natural empathy had kicked in, I noticed that if my son was crying, his sister would try to comfort him with her favorite toy dog. This was a kind and sympathetic gesture - but ultimately not much use to him. Fast forward a year to when they were about two-and-a-half and their inbuilt empathy was starting to activate, and it all changed. Now if my son was crying, his sister would try to make him feel better by passing him his cherished toy cat. That's the imaginative leap of empathy: understanding that other people might have different feelings, perspectives or desires to ourselves. And it makes all the difference.

OK, so empathy is part of our neural make-up. But how do we get better at it, and introduce it into our relationships with our kids? Here are my top three tips, based on my book Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It:

1. Practice empathic listening

We've all been in situations where we are arguing with our partner, husband or wife and we think to ourselves in frustration, "I wish they could just see things from my point of view, I wish they could understand my feelings!" What are we asking for? Empathy, of course. We want them to step into our shoes if only for a moment.

This is all about what's known as empathic listening. It is amazing how it can help ease tensions in the household. When you're talking to your kids, or even immersed in an argument with them, try this: simply attempt to listen out for their feelings and needs. Maybe even ask them (without interrupting) what their feelings and needs actually are. With little kids, you can help them articulate their feelings and needs. So when my daughter was small and having a tantrum, I used to say to her something like, "Are you feeling upset because I'm not taking you to the park right now?" And even if I was totally wrong about the reason, she immediately calmed down and we could talk about it properly.

So step one is to inject a bit of empathic listening into your parenting style.

2. Teach them about the Golden Rule and the Platinum Rule

Empathy doesn't come easily to some kids. They can be introverted, self-absorbed or simply self-centred, caught in their own world. Is there anything you can do?

An initial step, as all parents intuitively know, is to teach them what is known as the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This is how kids start to learn about morality. If your child is aggressive towards one of his or her friends, you will find yourself saying, "How would you feel if she was doing that to you?" That's the Golden Rule.

But don't think that's all you need. It's also worth telling your kids about the Platinum Rule: "Do unto others as they would have you do unto them." This one is about recognizing that other people might have views and feelings different from your own. Every child needs to understand this, so they can identify difference as well as similarity. When my daughter handed her brother his toy cat, she was practicing the Platinum Rule.

I've tried to teach the distinction between the two rules to my own kids, often asking them, "Is this a Golden Rule situation or a Platinum Rule situation?" They completely get it, and it helps them negotiate friendships and relationships with ease.

3. Recognize that we often don't understand our kids

I once saw my son, then four-years-old, gleefully pouring orange juice back and forth from one glass into another and making a huge mess all over the newly-cleaned kitchen floor. Just when I was about to erupt at him, I stopped myself and asked curiously what he was up to.

"I'm doing science, Daddy. Look, the juice goes up higher in a thin glass."

It hadn't occurred to me that there was serious scientific research going on. How could I get upset at him for turning the kitchen table into a pop-up physics lab?

The point is that we so often have mistaken assumptions about our kids. We can so easily misinterpret their actions and motivations. Often we just plain fail to understand them. One of the keys to empathic parenting is to recognize this reality. We are not all-knowing parents, which is precisely why it's so important to make that imaginative leap of empathy and try to understand their feelings, needs and perspectives on the world.

Roman Krznaric is one of the world’s leading experts on empathy and author of Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It. He is also founder of the Empathy Museum and the digital Empathy Library.

Watch more of Roman’s videos on empathy and parenting at Kids In The House.

©2015 Roman Krznaric

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