Ninety-six percent of parents consider it “very important, if not essential” that their children have “strong moral character,” according to a 2012 study done by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, but only 20% of youth actually prioritized caring above achievement and personal happiness, in a 2014 Harvard study. Parents and students BYU industrial design student Alison Brand and sociology student Marissa Getts recently spoke in a 2017 BYU TED talk about the importance of cultivating empathy in youth, which parents seem to understand, and effective ways to do so, which they might need assistance implementing to help children better overcome what may be seen as the natural selfishness of youth. “By actively and deliberately cultivating empathy in young people,” they said, “we empower them to create positive change in their communities and in the world.”
What is empathy? Getts defines it as the ability of one person to step into another’s shoes, imagine what they are feeling, and feel it with them. What would happen if no one possessed empathy? “Self-interest would reign. Anger, aggression, bullying would be more common than not. And we wouldn’t try to understand what people were feeling and think,” said Brand. Such actions could have a deleterious effect on one’s relationships from childhood to the relationships between countries.
By contrast, an empathetic world “is a world filled with kindness and compassion.” In it, people would be able to have positive interactions with both close friends and strangers.
How does one foster empathy? Getts and Brand recently interviewed young change-makers between the ages of 13-20 who were engaged in empathetic social innovation. Their projects included the construction of a Braille printer from Legos and the successful creation and implementation of an anti-bullying program in their school. They found that each of these children got to where they were through three milestones:
- Spark: “an experience or something they learned that made them feel deep empathy for a person or a problem”
- Action: this experience so impacted the children that they took action
- Validation: adults validated them, which helped them take their actions or projects further. “It was only because the adults in their lives didn’t snuff out their flame that they were able to accomplish such great things,” said Brand.
In each of the interviews, the youth cited the importance of their parents’ support. Furthermore, Getts and Brand reported that nearly all of the youth said that their parents initially said no to their project ideas but amended their answer after the child persisted or that they were surprised when their parents were in favor of their idea. “Somehow, parents have become either a real barrier or a perceived barrier to a child developing empathy and creating positive social change off of that,” explained Getts.
How does one rectify that? The speakers offered the following suggestions:
- Foster an environment for ‘sparking.’ Help children meet new people and have new, foreign experiences
- Encourage exploratory action. “It’s crucial that we step back and let these youth take appropriate risks. We need to teach them that learning, not perfect execution, is success,” said Brand.
- Provide positive validation wherever possible. Whether it’s feedback or money, any form of validation can help a child pursue their idea and go further than anyone might expect.
“Men build too many walls and not enough bridges,” said Joseph Fort Newton. This can be redressed by fostering empathy in youth. By allowing them to spark and take action, while offering affirmation, we enable them to feel with and for others and therefore change the world.
What are your ideas for fostering empathy in kids?