I was cruising a favorite DIY site this afternoon and I came across an amazing poster designed for classroom teachers. Its message was simple: Before You Speak, Think T – Is it true? H – Is it helpful? I – Is it inspiring? N – Is it necessary? K – Is it kind? The poster, obviously, was far more attractive than its mere reproduction here, but the real value is in the message and its lessons of empathy that need to be repeated for children of all ages. Defining Empathy [caption id="attachment_793" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Photo courtesy of Louisa Stokes"][/caption] Empathy is a word with which we are all familiar, but what does it really mean? According to the Unabridged Webster’s (yes, I looked this up in print) empathy is, “the projection of one’s own personality into the personality of another in order to understand him better; intellectual identification of oneself with another.” Empathy is also commonly called “benevolent selfishness” because of its emphasis on making “good selfish” decisions. In other words, an empathetic person makes a choice that is good for the collective both because it is the right decision and because it is the decision she truly wants to make. Of all the elements of emotional intelligence, the development of empathy is seen as the most important in helping children become self-actualized adults whose goals and concerns in life center on their inner sense of right and wrong, rather than going with the crowd. Developing Empathy Starts Early Children can begin to develop a sense of empathy as early as 18-months and, as such, are clearly influenced strongly by their parents’ choices in terms of these lessons. Parents who actively try to instill lessons of empathy from an early age are setting their children up for a more productive future. However, a 3 year old who has lacked these lessons is not lost, neither is a 13 year old, as long as he is given the right tools. The development of empathy starts on the playground and play room when children are asked to share in the feelings of their mates. When one child steals a toy from another, for example, the proper response is to ask both offending parties to consider the feelings of the other. I often do this with my two daughters, asking one how it would feel to get a toy taken and the other why one would feel it necessary to take a toy in the first place. Empathy through Service As children get older, the best way to teach lessons of empathy is through community service. By taking older children and teens out of their own comfort zone and asking them to view life from another’s perspective the lessons of empathy are inherent. This can be done within the school community by fusing lessons with special needs students, within the larger community by volunteer work with local agencies, or as part of the global community by uniting with other teachers across the globe via the World Wide Web. Rethinking the Lesson By facing the differences among cultures and within our own and then being asked to reflect upon them, children must consider all the questions on that poster: What is true? What is helpful? What is inspiring? What is necessary? What is kind? By coming back to these simple concepts, we are able to see the connection that empathy has in everyone’s lives. Perhaps the next time a child is tempted to bully or prejudge, these lessons can put a stop to it. Our job is simply to give them both the tools and the options with which to do so.
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