Empathy is the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions. Why is that so important for your children to develop early on – because the inability to feel and understand the sufferings or pain of others will determine whether your child becomes self-absorbed, self-interested and indifferent to the needs and feelings of others.
From a scriptural point of view, what could be more empathetic than John 11:35 – Yeshua wept. That weeping came from a heart of empathy, seeing the pain and sorrow of those who had just lost their beloved family member. He observed their heartfelt loss and longing to have their brother with them. Empathy was the direct result of identifying with their pain and experiencing their emotion. Thus, Yeshua wept.
There is also a direct correlation between the ability to have empathy and having a tender and soft heart. To the extent that we guard our heart from the hard and jaded images of life, we are able to feel and empathize with others, because we are able to be touched by the very heart of God, Himself. This is one of the reasons it is imperative to guard innocence. A child’s innocence is a precious gift which allows them to feel, believe, grasp and even internalize many things which adults are unable to see and feel. Yet, today’s world is set up in such a way that there is a constant bombardment and deluge of coarse and disturbing images and words which, when viewed and heard, on a regular basis will cause anyone to become indifferent and apathetic just as a way of protecting themselves from having to confront what they know to be wrong or undesirable.
We all know it’s wrong to beat someone with a whip but yet some video games use whips or other weapons to subdue the individual who is their prey. Children as young as 3 or 4 become anesthetized to what would ordinarily be seen as a cruel act. For them, this is a game, and the means to the end is normal and acceptable. Yet, many of us wonder why our children don’t always display empathy.
With the advent of television came such innocent films as Heidi with Shirley Temple or Walt Disney’s Old Yeller. Both of these films poignantly attempted to show the bonding of a young girl to her grandfather and the bonding of a boy to his dog, followed by the suffering and pain of the separation which ensues later in the film. While most children of the 50’s cried while seeing those films, many of today’s children mock them, find them boring or look upon them as almost a joke. What has happened?
This generation has become jaded and hardened by a combination of sophisticated and liberal television content, violent video games, vulgar pop music, its faulty role models and much more – all designed to strip away the innocence of children. Yes, many children are much more advanced than preceding generations, and this means that they are often able to learn faster or perceive with more understanding, but along with that is a diminishing of their innocence, undermining their ability to empathize and feel in a way that takes them out of themselves and causes them to be preoccupied with someone else’s pain and sadness.
It is the rare child who notices that another child doesn’t have proper shoes or a warm coat and will turn to their parents suggesting that they help to purchase these items for them. We’ve heard some of those stories on the news, but they are far and few between. More common are the stories of kids who are absorbed in their acquisition of the latest iPhone, video game or other gadget that they believe will bring them instant gratification, because that is what they truly long for.
The scary result of all of this are children who are incapable of looking around them, appreciating the bounty that most of them have, understanding the suffering and pain of a vast percentage of disadvantaged, disenfranchised and profoundly needy people, many of whom are children who will never have even a quarter of what today’s children have by way of clothing, food, shelter and entertainment.
So how can you raise a child to have a healthy amount of empathy? It might help to daily reinforce, in your child’s presence, the great number of blessings they have. This way, nothing will be taken for granted. There are no lack of stories, accounts and videos of underprivileged children which, if viewed together with your child, will highlight the tremendous disparity between those children and your own child, thereby bringing about a realization of how truly blessed they are by comparison.
If a child sees a parent continually trying to bless others less fortunate, it will also be a useful example to pattern. Volunteering in a soup kitchen or helping those less fortunate in your city will also reveal to your child that those with much are obligated to be a source of help – To Whom Much is Given, Much is Required, Luke 12:48. Giving to others should be a regular occurrence so that children can practically see generosity at work and understand that this is an offshoot of being a real believer. Proverbs 11:25 Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.
When a child is raised in a home where empathy is displayed by the parents, it’s almost a given that the child will grow up believing that this should be carried on by them. Be the best example you can possibly be in order to show your child that others matter to you, because you feel for them and, out of your own abundance, you want to somehow be a source of blessing in their lives. Also, take an active role in the sights and sounds to which your child is daily exposed. Do all you can to guard their hearts from becoming hard and callous. Teach your children this old saying: God didn’t add another day to your life because you needed it. He did it because someone out there needs you!
If you do all these things, you will likely have a child who has a healthy sense of empathy and who will grow up to bless others just as they have been blessed.