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Cultivating Empathy

Spring is a time when we turn our attention to our yards again after the winter has passed. We clean out weeds, prune bushes for new growth, prep the soil, plant flowers, and set up garden beds to make them ready for seedlings or new plants. Once we have done the work, we cover the beds with mulch to inhibit weed growth, to retain moisture, and regulate soil temperature. But all this work is done outside the home.

As we plant, cultivate our gardens, and create optimal spaces for flowers and produce to grow, we can equally cultivate and foster growth in our character and in the personal lives of our children and families. Just like mulch serves several different purposes to our garden and flower beds, promoting empathy in ourselves and our children assists in preventing the following in regards to others: reduced compassion, avoidance of connection, and resistance to help.

Learning to be empathic means developing an understanding of another’s point of view and their experience. It means noticing and paying purposeful attention to the emotions of both yourself and others. It is like walking in another person’s shoes and imagining fully their experience by embracing their perspective in any given situation. Developing and fostering empathy in others and ourselves is important because it determines how we respond to others. It means asking ourselves if we can comprehend the effect of someone’s lived experience and the impact upon their well-being or ability to function.

A great place to start is by increasing your emotional intelligence vocabulary by using an Emotion Wheel. Identify what emotion you or another person is feeling, whether it is a comfortable or uncomfortable emotion. A simple emotion wheel can be used for younger children. After identifying the emotion of another, provide an explanation of why the person would feel this way. For example, expressing empathy with your child may sound like “You feel hurt by the words that were said about you by some of your classmates” or “You are sad because of how your friend was treated today because their feelings are important to you.”

Giving recognition to the feelings and experiences of another along with expressing care, concern, and understanding of that experience is showing empathy. Teaching our children to develop greater emotional awareness towards other people can often look like asking them “What do you think they are feeling, and what do you imagine that experience was like for them?” It’s teaching kids to have another's oriented focus and response. Research has shown that teaching empathy is more challenging after the age of 14.

Another way we can cultivate empathy is to provide our families with altruistic opportunities of service. When children witness and identify another person’s discomfort or suffering and comprehend the needs of that person as greater than their own, they are beginning to learn empathy. There are plenty of opportunities we can use to engage our families in conversations that foster empathy. For example, as we discuss the details of our school or work day or even when driving from our homes to children’s activities. Just like we plant, cultivate our gardens, and create optimal spaces for flowers and produce to grow, we can be cultivating and fostering empathic responsiveness in ourselves and the lives of our families.

Resident in Counseling


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