Civic engagement takes empathy and an open mind. You have to teach children how to think rather than what to think. Whatever you believe, it’s so important that you understand how others got to their own point of view. This process begins with critical thinking. Empathy is both an emotional and cognitive experience. The emotional components of empathy are the first to emerge. Babies begin reflecting the emotional states and expressions of those around them right away. Thanks to mirror neurons, infants as young as 18 hours old often show some responsiveness to other infants in distress.
Here is how you can build capacity for empathy and civic engagement in your child:
When frustrated with students, pause and take a deep breath and try to see the situation from their perspective before responding. When a student is upset, reflect back his feelings or the rationale for his behavior before redirecting the behavior. Be aware of students’ non-verbal cues and follow up on them. For example, if a student is slumping in her chair and appearing withdrawn or angry, say something like “I noticed that you are quieter than usual today. Is something bothering you?” rather than immediately reprimanding her. Ask for students’ input when appropriate and feasible (for example, when establishing classroom rules or generating ideas for group projects) – and really listen. Find opportunities to incorporate their feedback and respond to their needs.
Yes, really. A study has found that meditation helped to increase the part of the brain that holds our capacity for empathy. Using mindfulness meditation exercises to concentrate on their relationships with their families and friends, participants actually experienced changes in their brains that improved their experience of empathy.
There are many excellent children’s books that encourage civic engagement with the goal of improving society. Books like Grace for President highlight civic actions. Through the eyes of an elderly African American woman and her ancestors, we see the history of voting rights and the way that activism made a difference in Lillian’s Right to Vote. Dave Eggers’s book What Can a Citizen Do? gives simple actions children can take to engage in their communities.
Provide opportunities for children to practice empathy.
Children are born with the capacity for empathy, but it needs to be nurtured throughout their lives. Learning empathy is in certain respects like learning a language or a sport. It requires practice and guidance. Regularly considering other people’s perspectives and circumstances help make empathy a natural reflex and, through trial and error, helps children get better at tuning into others’ feelings and perspectives.
Encourage empathy through stories
Adults can help kids build their empathy muscles through play-acting, reading books that let them get inside the characters’ minds, and watching inspiring movies. Activities that allow careful reflection on how others are feeling in a given situation help build the skills needed for moral action. The right book can stir a child’s empathy better than any lesson or lecture ever could. And the right book matched with the right child can be the gateway to opening his heart to humanity.
Developing empathy takes time. Your child probably won’t be a perfectly empathetic being by age three. (There are some teenagers and even adults who haven’t mastered this skill completely either!) In fact, a big and very normal part of being a toddler is focusing on me, mine, and I. Remember, empathy is a complex skill and will continue to develop across your child’s life.
Build a ‘climate’ of empathy
Third, as a family, or as a classroom, put a focus on working together to build a “climate” that encourages children to be empathic and understanding with their family and friends. If your child, or a child in your classroom, is struggling with empathy, try to set them up for success by creating opportunities to be empathic and highlight for them how being kind can benefit everyone involved: “That was very kind of you to help your sister when she lost her favorite toy. I bet she’ll remember that and want to help you when you need it!” This will foster more of the same types of behaviour in the future.