My friend has multiple chemical sensitivities. Neither her ex-husband nor her parents seem able to grasp how the environments they create effect her. When someone tells her she is imagining health issues, I see her give up a little every time.
My friend blogs about environmental impact. Despite his ability to grasp environmental issues and science, he doesn’t seem able to grasp the genuine efforts of those working to change policies and practices that could have a real impact on impact. He is frustrated, and he has blamed politicians.
I’ve been wondering lately why it is that some people seem able to put themselves in the place of others—understanding why they do what they do, understanding how they feel or why they are in pain—and others can’t seem to step outside their own experience to see another view.
To see a situation through the eyes of another is a profound step. Is it a skill? Can it be learned—and taught?
Specifically, I wonder what I as a parent can do to make sure that my children have the quality of empathy, understanding and sharing the feelings of another, particularly when they are adults making decisions that will have long-term consequences for the world in which they and their own children will live.
Research on Children and Empathy
There is plenty of research available on children and empathy. The pathways to empathic children and adults are fairly clear. A child learns to recognize the feelings of others by learning to recognize her or his own feelings.
When the New York Times published an article last week about nurturing empathy in children, a Psychology Today writer who has recently co-authored a book on empathy made a very important point: children learn empathy when their own needs are met not when they suffer. This is important because the emphasis is on the need for security in order for the child to be able to extend awareness to others. I child doesn’t learn empathy by making it through hard times but by feeling safe enough to think beyond self.
The Practical Keys to Teaching Environmental Empathy
Empathy can be learned and taught in some way at any age. Keep in mind as a parent of young children, though, that from 3-7 years old is the key time to help children make connections that encourage their empathy.
The Baby Center offers practical advice on teaching empathy.
- Help the child name her feelings.
- Encourage the child to talk about his own and others’ feelings.
- Teach the child to recognize nonverbal cues.
- And my suggestion: use nonviolent communication and positive discipline.
Make a conscious effort to engage your child in global issues of sustainability in a way that is developmentally appropriate. Help them to understand not only the feelings of those people they know face to face but the feelings and experiences of children and others around the world. The more they connect with the global consequences experienced by others, the more likely they will continue to develop that skill of empathy as a policy-making, action-taking adult.
- Tom Berryman, “Looking at Children’s Relationships With Nature From a Developmental Perspective: Towards an Appropriate Curriculum.” In P.J. Fontes & M. Gomes, Environmental Education and the Contemporary World, Proceedings of the International Congress Environmental Education and the Contemporary World. 19-20 October 2000. Lisbon: Instituto de Inovaçao Educacional.
- Louise Chawla, “Growing Up Green: Becoming an Agent of Care for the Natural World,” Div. 34 (Population and Environment), APA Annual Convention in Boston, Aug. 14-17, 2008. “[A] theoretical framework for understanding the developmental paths in childhood and adolescence to lives of active care for the natural world.”
- The Children and Nature Network Community Action Guide: Building the Children & Nature Movement from the Ground Up, 2008.
- Children and Nature Focus of Developmental Journal, Journal of the Developmental Processes, January 02, 2010.
- Facing the Future. Curriculum on global sustainability issues.
- Randy White, “Young Children’s Relationship with Nature: Its Importance to Children’s Development & the Earth’s Future,” White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, 2004.