Cultivating Empathy in a Season of Mass Consumption

October 9th, 2018

For many Americans, December is one of the most joyful times of the year. Holiday lights, cheerful music, festive movies and television specials, and, of course, the joy of winter break — the many traditions associated with this time of year makes it a glorious time for most. Unfortunately, not everyone enjoys the winter holidays with hope and joy. Due to a range of circumstances, including hardship, this time of year can be especially difficult for some.

The winter holidays may be one of the most important times to create opportunitiesfor children to learn empathy, compassion, and, perhaps most importantly, thevalue of connecting with one another in meaningful ways.  

What is empathy?

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Make You Smarter Than IQ, explains the three types of empathy in an article posted to his website:

  1. Cognitive empathy: Cognitive empathy is knowing how another person feels, or “perspective-taking.” This form of empathy is highly effective at motivating people to apply their best efforts. While initially all forms of empathy may appear to be prosocial, cognitive empathy does have a dark side. Individuals who are purely self-motivated (such as interrogators, narcissists and sociopaths) can be masters at this form of empathy and utilize it for purely selfish reasons.
  2. Emotional empathy: Emotional empathy is truly feeling the emotions of others. Emotional empathy is due to the activation of mirror neurons, which help individuals to be attuned to another person’s inner emotional world. While emotional empathy does promote bonding and attachment and can positively affect trust and loyalty, one downside is that it can become overwhelming to the person extending empathy, causing burnout and then ultimately detachment as a coping mechanism. Emotional empathy must be paired with a healthy ability to self-regulate one’s own emotions and high attention to self-care.
  3. Empathetic empathy: Empathetic empathy, also referred to as empathic or compassionate empathy, involves the capability of understanding a person’s predicament and feeling with them along with the willingness to help if necessary.

Our goal as educators, parents, guardians, and mentors is to cultivate empathetic empathy in children. Empathy is one of the core competencies associated with emotionalintelligence, and it requires the ability to be highly attuned to theexperiences of others.

Empathy is not synonymous with sympathy. Rather than simply observing or making note of someone’s experience from a distance and feeling for them, empathy calls on the observer to step inside that experience, and feel with that person and to take action if action is appropriate. Children have an extraordinary capacity to experience and express empathy, and they learn empathy through observing it in action. In other words, we must model empathy.

Cultivating Empathy in a Season of Mass Consumption

The holiday season is the perfect time to intentionally begin to model empathy. Thefollowing tips can help you cultivate kindness, compassion, and empathy inchildren throughout this holiday season and beyond.

  1. Model active listening. Empathy begins with observation, which requires a keen ability to listen. Active listening is a technique in which you relay back to the child what you heard her say by way of restating or paraphrasing what was heard in your own words. This practice allows your child to feel heard and understood and you the ability to gain important insight into the emotions and feelings of your child.
  2. Be fully present. Most of us think of the holidays as a time for togetherness and connection. But the reality is that it can be a time of chaos and stress. Practice being fully present with your child. To be fully present means that all focus is on what is happening in the here and now. Your intention is focused on noticing what is happening with your child and not trying to control what it is happening. It is being present to the words being spoken by your child, the emotions being experienced and the feelings being expressed without analyzing, judging or placing attachment to them.
  3. Taking personal interest. To take personal interest in another person or in a situation is the epitome of empathetic empathy. Taking a personal interest in the emotional experiences of your child, their interests, desires, and curiosities involves the willingness to be genuinely invested in the outcome and assuming responsibility or joint responsibility in doing so. While this may seem obvious, the reality is that it requires intentionality and a commitment to pay close attention. This can be challenging during a hectic holiday season.

Make Empathy Actionable

Children learn through modeling and doing, which is why itis also important to make empathy actionable. Below are some tips for ways your family can connect in meaningful ways and build community.

  • Expand the holiday dinner table. If you know someone in your community, perhaps through a church, synagogue, or nonprofit association, who is experiencing hardship, invite them to join your holiday dinner or another festive occasion during winter break.
  • Instead of purchasing gifts, make them. Encourage your child to make gifts for his classmates, neighborhood friends, and family members. When we invest our creative and intellectual resources in creating something for others, we connect with them in more meaningful ways. And, they experience the thoughtfulness and kindness as well!
  • Comfort the vulnerable. Whether visiting a local hospital, nursing home, homeless shelter or soup kitchen, giving children the opportunity to engage with vulnerable populations cultivates empathy, builds community, and spreads kindness and compassion. Bring craft projects, homemade holiday cards, sing carols, etc. to spread joy.
  • Adopt a family in need. There are many organizations that work diligently to ensure families in need are not forgotten during the holidays. Involveyour child in the shopping,organizing, and delivering of your holiday package.

Empathy is embeddedwithin the Selwyn mission, and for good reason. Children start their lives as egocentric, believing that the natural state of the world is that it revolves around their needs. Nurturing empathy in our students helps them build healthy relationships, reduce stress and accept a broader range of disparate ideas. Ina very real way, a well-defined empathetic person is often a stronger collaborator, learner and leader.

The holidays are the perfect time to cultivate empathy and to model the joy of giving. This season can easily become about mass consumption, instead, let’s make it about mass compassion! By fostering empathy, kindness, and generosity this holiday season, we model for children the true spirit of the season and also provide opportunities for building character, leadership skills and our individual capacity for building community.

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