The Reality of Teaching Your Kids Empathy Today Instead of Tomorrow

8 minute read

(13 if you're reading this on a BlackBerry.)

Adam Shepard
Co-founder and COO, Practice Empathy™

Quite  literally the worst thing in the world is observing some shithead gratuitously mistreating and berating the poor clerk at Subway or McDonald’s or the post office or a bar in the middle of the day or wherever while his/her child stands by idly watching the whole charade develop.  

Okay, it’s maybe not the worst thing in the world. Famine is bad. Lack of access to education in the developing world, also bad. Persecution of rival ethnicities. Closedmindedness, in general. White people rocking cornrows. 

So not literally the worst. But certainly top 5.  

I mean, gosh. If evolution is going to run the course that Darwin laid out, are we presently headed in the right direction? I’m not often judgmental, but when I see Shithead Jr. looking up at Shithead Sr. and emulating his/her behaviors, how can I not pause and worry that we’re doing future generations a disservice with the values we represent to them?

At a certain point, you’re just a verifiably contemptible person, and there’s nothing left to be done. Bro, you’re 30. You’ve had the full slate of parents and teachers and coaches and mentors and guidance counselors and books to teach you how to NOT be contemptible, and you just didn’t pay attention. Bummer. But what about this next generation coming up? Can’t we help them?

Yes! Well, or maybe not. Who really knows? By the time humanity has the actual answer, you and I are going to be dead, so it will be somebody else’s problem. So I guess the real question is: Shouldn’t we at least try in the meantime? 

Yes again! And now! Today!

Empathy is literally the most important concept for any human being to understand. Okay, maybe not literally the most important. There’s integrity, too, and courage and self control and loyalty and, well, again, we’ll just call it top 5. No matter its rank, though, empathy forms a fundamental component of any personality, and--much like when you accidently said a swear word in front of a toddler, and somehow they heard it and are presently repeating it like a dying parrot in distress--as our brains are at their most crucial development stages from birth to age five, this is a concept that must be introduced early. 

Reason #1 To Teach Your Kids Empathy To-Day Instead of Tomorrow: It’s Hard to Unlearn Negative Personality Traits

Collaborative studies with 23andMe show that genetics play a bigger role in the development of empathy than we previously thought. Indeed, empathy is a learned behavior, but now we know that at least we all actually start with empathy already in our blood.

Teaching empathy now means teaching emotional balance. Teaching empathy to a child at a learning adaptable age helps them to better understand their own emotions so that they can understand the emotions of others. If a child has not understood--and related to and come to grips with--the sadness that comes from being picked on or not being chosen for a sports team or having lost a relative or being lied to by a good friend, how can she reasonably be expected to maintain emotional grounding later when she is a brand new parent, the mortgage is due Wednesday, her husband was laid off from his job yesterday afternoon, and her boss just increased her workload? The ability to control all of the confusion and worry and disarray originates on the playground now. 

Another example: a classmate comes to school with the hottest and hippest new backpack. The sportiest of Jansports. I’m talking custom stitching, gold-plated zippers, hand-painted designs, and a hidden compartment that separates pencils by color. It even has a super annoying whistle that only adults can hear. Do you want your child to be the one looking at that backpack with jealous eyes or do you want your child to walk across the room and say, “Man! What a cool backpack! Congratulations!” Fomenting thoughts of, “Why don’t I have a new backpack?” or,  “I am going to put that whistle straight in the trashcan as soon as I get the first chance” only build up and manifest over time, and it takes many sessions of expensive therapy in adulthood to get in touch with thoughts about “Fuck Jerry for getting that promotion” or “Why are all of my friends happily married and I’m not?” or “Yeah, those people are poor, but I have my own problems.” Signs of jealousy at age 12 are easy to unlearn. Even easier at age 6. Later on? Much, much more difficult to dismiss. It certainly didn’t work out well for Regina George in Mean Girls when she was confronted about her toxic behavior. 

That’s right. I referenced it.

Empathy allows a child to access his or her emotions subconsciously and to respond to a situation appropriately. A lack of empathy can cause a child to seem shallow, manipulative, uncaring, and almost unreachable on an emotional level. Lack of empathy as a child is where the name “Karen” comes from in adulthood. What kind of kids do we actually want living alongside us in this world? In what kind of world do we want them to grow? 

Reason #2 to Teach Your Kids Empathy To-Day Instead of Tomorrow: They Need Sharp Emotional Tools to Combat the Evil Forces That Come Later  

And there’s a lot of evil coming later. Ignorant and tyrannical bosses. Lazy coworkers. Deceitful business partners. Hypocritical political leaders. Apathetic teachers. Abusive boyfriends and girlfriends. People who put pineapple on pizza. 


Gosh, meth. All of what I just mentioned, and I almost forgot about meth.

At present? What kind of problems do they have now? Little Petey wouldn’t share the building blocks after nap time today at preschool? Man, this is going to be a long uphill battle for you, kid. Now is the time to teach them both how good they actually have it (nap time on a Tuesday?) and how to deal with that little confrontation with Little Petey. The sooner they can come to grips with the fact that the world doesn’t revolve around them, the easier it will be on the palate. 

And the sooner a child can learn to handle an anger-provoking situation, the better prepared he or she will be for the next challenge and the next and the next. There’s a reason the phrase “nip in the bud” exists.

Yes, everybody is born with varying levels of empathy already built into their brains, but that’s only a start. Choosing to expand from that foundation NOW sets up success for later. Learning to deal with Little Petey and his building blocks in preschool leads to defending Tyler from a bully in the 3rd grade which leads to collaborating with a team on a science project in the 9th grade which leads to volunteering for Habitat for Humanity in Ghana during summer breaks from college which leads to amicable business agreements in adulthood. Children who learn empathy early have more authentic social circles, score better academically, have more successful professional careers, and have fewer videos of them yelling at strangers online.

Conversely, not learning to deal with Little Petey now leads to punching Tyler in the face in the 3rd grade which leads to smoking weed (or meth!) in the woods behind school in the 9th grade which leads to your kid’s acceptance at his/her third community college choice which leads to culturally-appropriated cornrows which leads to tax fraud by age 30, which leads to, well, it ain’t any prettier from there. No offense to community colleges.

Yes, this actually happens, and often. Go Google “Recidivism Rates”. Recidivism, noun: “what happens when you spend all of your time working and playing video games and watching TV and drinking with your buddies on Saturday night when you instead should be teaching your kids how to practice empathy.”

Reason #3 to Teach Your Kids Empathy To-Day Instead of Tomorrow: If Not Now, Then When? 

When we are young, we all learn how to walk and how to speak and how to read and how to fold toilet paper to wipe our butt. We learn these attributes at a young age so we can grow into a functional person (and so we don’t enter adulthood just scrunching toilet paper and hoping for the best). Our brain develops from crawling to walking to running. The same evolutionary principles apply to teaching a child empathy early, and it takes time. (But if you have a son rather than a daughter, you’re behind the curve a bit since it turns out that females have more empathy than men.) Formal instruction on empathy is cute, but these are lessons that have to play out over time using the tools of a caring and communicative relationship: storytelling, role playing, and feedback and reflection.

The other option, rolling the dice to see what happens later, is a gamble. Opposing sides disagree on where to put the most funding for rehabilitation programs (behavioral and otherwise), but no one disagrees that our best use of resources is to direct our youth on the right path from the beginning. The same principles apply to a child’s emotional development as they do to their education

Missed time from school can have an immediate effect on the student's relationship with the law. A Texas study found that when a school suspended or expelled a student for a discretionary offense, that student was 2.85 times more likely to have contact with the juvenile justice system during the next academic year. This absence from school can also make them more likely to drop out, which puts them at a greater risk to be institutionalized in prisons and health care facilities--more than 45 percent compared to nearly 9 percent for the general student population.

On top of increased earnings potential and faster career growth, studies suggest that putting more children in pre-K now will result in fewer adults in prison later in life. The long-term impact that early childhood education can have on a child is astounding. The benefits of ECE can better entire communities, not only the child or their families.

I know it’s not easy to trust “a Texas study”, because Texas doesn’t really believe in studying--or science--but this time they got it right. Emotional functions can become just as second nature as reading. It becomes part of the right side when we teach them what is right and wrong in their behavior and how to view or treat another person. From Psychology Today:

Infants learn to identify and regulate their emotions through successful dyadic interactions with their caretakers, primarily their mothers. By having his or her emotional states recognized and responded to, the groundwork is laid not just for the child’s sense of self but sense of other. In time, that seed grows into empathy and the capacity for intimate connection. Children who don’t experience this kind of dyadic interaction have a diminished sense of self, difficulties managing and regulating emotions, and sometimes an impaired capacity for empathy. The avoidantly attached individual isn’t comfortable in intimate settings, and has trouble recognizing his or her own emotions, as well as those of others. The anxiously attached adult may lack the ability to moderate emotions and may end up being swept up in someone else’s emotions.

The reinforced behavior of today shows up later in life. 94.7% of the behavior we exhibit in our old age has fully matured by the time we are 20. Okay, I made that up, but it seems about exactly right. If you're a jerk when you're 12, all hope is not lost, but it certainly doesn't get any easier over time to rectify your low emotional intelligence score. If you're irritable when you're 30, do you think a bulb of enlightenment just happens to illuminate in your head when you're 80?

Education and empathy: start early, enjoy the benefits later.

Reason #4 to Teach Your Kids Empathy To-Day Instead of Tomorrow: If Not You, Then Who?

It’s a horrifying thought, that there are some truly, truly awful parents out there. People who consciously (or, yeah, mistakenly) went through the process to have unprotected intercourse and bring a baby into the world only to leave their offspring to their own, what, intuition? And so the only counter for a neglectful parent must be an even more devoted one. 

Who else? Your kids’ teachers? Yeah, there are some great ones out there, but that can’t be your plan, to have the person who is teaching them how to graph parabolas based on x-axis and y-axis coordinates to also teach them the reasoning behind why it is important to return the shopping cart to the shopping cart corral. There’s no quadratic equation for the heart.

Their softball coach? Also a great guy with tons of wisdom to impart, but he can’t be counted on to teach 15 girls about empathy when what he really wants is for your daughter to stop taking selfies and start getting to first base before she’s thrown out.

The judicial system? Too late. 

Mentors? Guidance counselors? Other parents? Celebrities? Fine, but, again, is that who you want your child to be entirely? The product of other people? Have you met other people? You want your kid looking to Kim Kardashian and Kanye West for inspiration?

Study after study has shown the importance of mimicry in the development of empathy in babies

In addition, individuals with high trait empathy have been found to engage in more facial mimicry than those with low trait empathy. Mimicry, then, may be essential in the development of empathy. There is evidence to suggest that the tendency to imitate facial gestures (i.e., mouth opening and tongue protrusion) begins early in infancy in both humans and monkeys. There has also been a single report indicating that newborn expressions can be recognized—presumably based on imitation—when they are observing facial expressions of emotion such as fear, sadness, and surprise. More generally, individual differences in behavioral imitation abilities during toddlerhood have been found to predict conscience in early childhood. Through imitating facial expressions associated with certain emotions, infants may begin to internalize the emotional experience of the other. 

Conscience? In toddlers? I know 40-year olds that don’t have a conscience. 

And one more point on this as we recall back to Shithead Jr. in observance of Shithead Sr. mistreating the clerk at McDonald’s: if Junior quite clearly isn’t going to learn constructive traits from Senior, maybe the most soothing thought of all is that YOUR KID can be one of the ones to turn Junior around. Lessons on the playground can be just as enduring and wholesome as those in the classroom or at home. Your kid teaches Junior how to admire that awesome backpack across the room, and the world keeps spinning round and round.

Reason #5 to Teach Your Kids Empathy To-Day Instead of Tomorrow: Our Children Are Their Children’s Future

We’re talking generations after generations after generations. We’re talking about how your grandkids are going to set upon the world to volunteer for the Coastal Cleanup or head out to the countryside to teach those hillbilly kids how to read directly because today you taught your kids to be grateful for that crappy birthday gift they got from cousin Bert. 

Communicate your feelings. 

Talk about how others must be feeling in a particular moment. 

Sneeze into your elbow. 

Hang a bird feeder. 

Call somebody out for an off-color remark. 

Let someone else take the lead. 

Invite the new kid to sit with you at lunch. 

Parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world but that doesn’t mean that teaching fundamental life lessons should ever be overlooked. Inspiring our adolescents to practice empathy now can have a profound effect on our progeny long after my and your ashes have been spread on the beach in El Porvenir, Honduras (or however you’ve decided to spend eternity). Today’s good behavior turns to habit, and those positive habits become easier to represent and much more profitable for our future endeavors than the barren upshots of our otherwise villainous behavior.   

Let’s teach our kids that.

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Our mission at Practice Empathy™ is to spread kindness and compassion. If you're an asshole, then we likely wouldn't get along. But if you're not an asshole, and you want to show your friends and family and various random passersby that you're both thoughtful and considerate (and have impeccable fashion sense), have a look around our site to see what we have to offer. 

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