We were in New York City over this past American Thanksgiving weekend. After enjoying the Macy’s parade in the afternoon, we went out for a Thanksgiving dinner in the evening. As I sat watching tables full of happy families enjoying the holiday together, sipping on sparkly beverages and chowing down on turkey and pumpkin pie, I couldn’t help but think about the several dozen servers who were there working alone, without their families close, to help them celebrate such a significant holiday. As our server took our order I looked at him and said, “Will you get an opportunity to celebrate the holiday with family and friends at some point?” With tears in his eyes, he told me that he is used to working and being away from his family at times like this but he thanked me for thinking of him.
He said in all the years he has been doing this job, (and he was definitely an experienced, career waiter), I was the first person who had ever acknowledged that he was missing a family celebration while helping others celebrate. He was so touched to be thought of in this way, by a complete stranger. At the time, I had no idea how significant my simple question would be and how much my concern and empathy would be appreciated. On my part, it was such a simple act and yet it meant the world to someone else. He said that I made his night. I will never forget our exchange.
Afterwards it got me thinking, how much do we show care and concern for others? Is this why when a server or salesperson says, “How are you today?” and I respond by saying, “I am fine thanks. How are you?” they always look surprised, sometimes even shocked. Why is it so out of the ordinary for us to care about how other people are, whether we know them or not? Treating other people like they matter is so critical for so many reasons.
It used to be believed that humans were innately selfish but that is simply not true. We are all wired for empathy from birth; we just have to learn to connect the wires to make it work. And it all starts with the children. Children can absolutely be taught empathy and kindness right from a very early age.
The first thing to remember when teaching empathy is that our children are always watching and mirroring us. The kind of language we use is very important. How do we describe people? Are we judgmental or tolerant, accepting or shaming? Our children are copying all of this. Speaking negatively about others in front of our children, for example, “she is a mean girl”, “he is so selfish”, “they are so annoying” is not empathetic language, as it does not recognize the emotions behind an action, and it sets a very poor example for our children.
Empathy begins with the capacity to take another perspective, to walk in another person’s shoes. Empathy also includes valuing, respecting and understanding another person’s views even when we don’t necessarily agree with them. It’s about perspective and compassion. Helping children understand the feelings behind certain behaviours is an excellent way to teach empathy. When we speak to our children about conflicts at school, with friends, or with siblings, for example, we should help them to reflect on the experience and feelings of the other person involved in the conflict, consider how the other person might be feeling and what they can do to help make things better. If we keep in mind that all children are fundamentally good, and there is reason behind all behaviours, it will help us to ditch the negative labels and guide our children to find the good in others and lead them to a kinder conclusion.
What better time of year to practice our empathy skills than the holiday season? We should all be asking ourselves what the world would be like when experienced from another person’s point of view. Empathy is truly at the heart of what it means to be human. It’s a foundation for living an ethical, kind and compassionate life. It is absolutely key to preventing all forms of cruelty and the great news is that being a part of caring relationships is one of the biggest predicators of happiness, well above money and material possessions.
Being empathetic ourselves, and teaching our children to be empathetic, is a win-win for everyone. A classroom, school, family, or community full of empathetic, caring people makes for a more cooperative and peaceful life experience for us all. It’s not hard…it just takes awareness and practice. What a gift!
With caring thoughts,
Principal and Co-Founder
Children’s Garden School