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Building an Empathy Muscle

Five summer tips for getting children to think and care about people everywhere.

By Homa Sabet Tavangar

Homa Sabet Tavangar is the author of "Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World" (Random House/Ballantine Books, 2009): www.growingupglobal.net.

July 23, 2013

Summer offers a perfect chance to explore – ideas, places, experiences. Ideally, it’s a time for playing outside, slowing down, trying a new hobby, and more family time.  Among the “muscles” I like to exercise, when not as bound by classroom exigencies, are those that go beyond anything a subject test can measure.  These are the skills that really make us human – virtues like compassion, creativity, empathy, and generosity. Ultimately, these build better students once school starts again, too.

Two summers ago, when my youngest daughter was eight, I shared snippets of news developments about famine in the Horn of Africa.  She and neighborhood friends had been holding lemonade stands any day they could get an adult to agree to supervise, and this spurred the idea that the proceeds from their sales should all go toward helping out kids who needed food much more than they needed video games or treats from the ice cream truck.  I was touched by their response for the first lemonade stand, but what really impressed me was the fact that once they engaged in this service, their concern for the cause grew and has remained with them to this day. Now it’s personal.

Watching their desire to act on a natural sense of compassion has been powerful.  Children have an incredible capacity to care, to give, and to empathize from a very young age.  It has nothing to do with pity.  An instinct for justice comes naturally to a young child who is free from skepticism, prejudice and doubt. 

When parents see that kernel of compassion in our children, we want (and need) to cultivate it.  Like the development of a muscle, this awareness often grows undetectably, but can be deliberately nurtured – and summer break offers a perfect opportunity to do this.  Here are five steps I’ve found to help conscientiously build empathy – empowering kids to care and want to make a difference in a world that badly needs it.

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Five Ways to Build an Empathy Muscle:

1. Talk about what you care about.  When you see qualities like compassion and generosity displayed, point them out, whether it’s at the dinner table, while grocery shopping, or in a movie (quietly).  Without our realizing, our youngest daughter was paying attention to the conversations on service, friendship, caring and global developments that we were having with other adults and our older daughters.  When we frame complex ideas through a lens of positive qualities, then difficult situations, nearby or far-away, become less overwhelming, and the vocabulary to talk about peaceful solutions starts building.

2. “Be a friend to the whole human race.”  When you widen your circle of friends to include people from diverse backgrounds, your children can imagine that anyone who looks and lives differently from them could be their friends.  We have friends from various parts of Africa, so the crisis seemed less far-away, impersonal, or vague. Sharing comes naturally among friends.

3. Learn about causes  together.  Feel empowered to be part of the solution to big global issues by learning about the Millennium Development Goals. These eight practical, achievable objectives were adopted collectively by the world’s leaders to stamp out extreme poverty by 2015.  In Growing Up Global, I include a framework for discussion and simple action steps on the Goals for kids of all ages. 

4. Embrace a cause.  Of the Goals, is there a specific one that tugs at your heart or that has impacted your own family, like education or maternal health?  Once you decide on an issue, you can look up action initiatives and causes.  I include many resources in Growing Up Global, too.  Lemonade stands, book drives, haircuts, movie nights, 10K races, babysitting, skipping a snack – when these efforts are dedicated toward helping others, they go from mundane to unforgettable. 

5. Nurture inspiration.  From Nobel Peace Prize winners to so many great causes started by kids and even TV events, like Girl Rising – learning real stories about real people making impact can inspire kids to follow their dreams for a better world.  Summer also is a perfect time to add stories of inspiration from diverse cultures to your reading and viewing lists.

How do you nurture an “empathy muscle” in your home or classroom?