First Empathy, Then Action
The word “activism” can have unfairly negative connotations, like people who want anarchy or something. But really, it’s as simple as being active in our worlds to enact positive change. As I watch the passion of young people all over the world right now, I definitely want my children to want this passion and empowerment. So what does it take as parents to raise our children to not only authentically care about the world outside of themselves, but also act on it? I share what scientists know about empathy, and common-sense ways we can nurture our children to translate that empathy into action.
In our Sunday morning service, instead of the usual reading of a story for kids, we all watched a video of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg speaking to politicians in Sweden about environmental justice. In case you haven’t heard of this young phenom, she was just nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Did you catch the part that she is 16 years old?
We are all witnessing young people taking on activism in new and different ways not seen yet in many of our lifetimes. I’m not sure where it stands in comparison to the 60s, but I would argue that the globalization the internet has created gives today’s activism an unparalleled reach and contagion.
That’s why I was disappointed when we walked to our car Sunday morning and our children had very little to say about this amazing young woman, and her message about the environment. Where was the inspiration? The passion?
We love the Rebel Girls series and do our best to talk often about historical and current people who have made a difference in the world. In fact, it was only in the last few years that we started going to church, but we picked one that actively promotes values of social justice, community building, and taking care of the earth.
That’s what we have done. But what haven’t we done? Why do our kids seem unmoved by this amazing teenager? Why does one of my children still regularly complain about walking the ¼ mile to school and reusable sandwich bags despite my explanations, “it’s better for the earth.”
Are we raising them to care about the world beyond themselves? How do we make sure we are doing that?
I’m guessing I’m not the only parent to mull over these questions in my mom brain instead of falling asleep at a decent hour. In researching the “answers,” I realized I already knew them, AND we are already doing many of them. You probably are too, but you know we parents are never done.
Empathy First: US and Them
It may be the most obvious but forgotten truth: our children watch how we behave, absorbing it all in their spongey brains. Research supports this when it comes to showing respect and kindness toward others: our children do what we do. They watch how we treat others.
I once read a big predictor of children’s kindness was how their parents treated servers in restaurants. Fascinating. It’s something to keep in mind when we are having those traffic rage moments with little eyes and ears in the backseat.
The other unsurprising but incredibly important predictor of treating others well: empathy. Clearly, any degree of caring about the world has to include a core of empathy.
I think it can be easy to take empathy for granted – assuming that unless something derails it (like abuse and neglect), empathy is a natural part of child development. There is no way for me to do justice to the expansive area of children and empathy in a blog post. Suffice it to say, years of research and intense focus on the subject does show that empathy is hardwired at young ages like 12-18 months. It makes sense that empathy gives us an evolutionary advantage because it helps us respond to infants’ needs to keep them alive, and strengthen our social networks to keep all of us alive.
But research also shows children can lose this natural capacity for empathy. Parents and the larger environment are constantly strengthening and pruning our kids’ neurological connections. The more children engage in thinking of others’ perspectives and emotions, the stronger and more automatic these connections become. But the opposite is true; if they do not practice over time, these connections weaken from lack of use.
This probably goes without saying, but our empathy for them also matters. When our children feel emotionally nurtured, they are emotionally secure and more able to notice others’ needs and emotions.
In short, if we want our children to care about the world, they have to start with empathy.
Taking Action: What Do We Do?
My 7-year-old recently came home with her “When I’m President” worksheet. Her response? “I will make sure everyone feels safe and loved.” Yes, my heart burst a bit at the goodness of her heart, and I think I can rest assured we are building the empathy we want in our children.
Yet, they seem untouched by young Greta and her environmental justice mission. I see other children cutting their hair for cancer donations, saving up money for months to give to animal shelters, and organizing charity bake sales on a Saturday. And mine counting up their allowance in the “save” envelope to buy a smart watch.
So what do we DO?
First, TALK about issues. I think many parents shy away from open discussions of current events because it feels like exposing our innocent children to some awful truths. But as usual, our children can handle more than we expect, as long as we are sensitive and appropriate in how we deliver difficult topics. For our children to care about people (and the earth) being treated unjustly and want to do something about it, they have to know about it.
I realize this comes from a very privileged place, and many parents do not have the luxury of choosing when to expose their children to harsh realities. They already live them. In fact, research shows how terrible white “liberal” parents are at discussing race and racism with their children. In our house, we have board books about Rosa Parks, actual books about Harriet Tubman and Ruby Bridges, and regularly bring up examples of racism and sexism around us now and in history.
Of course, these discussions are never done, and will evolve as they mature, but they are definitely listening. And we can do more. Always.
Second, and very obvious, do even small acts of volunteerism. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture or super intensive time commitment, but look for opportunities throughout the year to connect with service in the community.
This is where schools, neighborhoods, and faith communities play a huge role, since it can’t be just about us parents.
We have a combination of a service-oriented elementary school (they also have a curriculum for social emotional learning, including a huge focus on building empathy), a vibrantly diverse and socially active neighborhood (hence Saturday charity bake sales), and a faith community that models inclusion and service with the mantra, “open minds, helping hands, and loving hearts.”
A Ba’hai friend and neighbor ran some workshops out of her house for children to learn and practice values that every parent would want to instill. In one session, they made bags of snacks, socks, and warm gear to hand out to homeless people. We kept them in our car and my daughter has hand-delivered them when she saw someone in need. The recipients’ surprise and genuine gratitude were a more enriching experience than any discussion about generosity we could have had.
Parents can’t do it all, but we can find the communities around us that do the work with us of raising children who take action.
Third, teach them to stand up for their beliefs in real life, and to stand up for themselves. My daughters recently told me how a group of them spoke up to a counselor in their after school program about concerns about another counselor. They didn’t even need our coaching – they felt confident in their voices, emboldened I’m sure by peers joining them, and appropriately expressed their discomfort to an adult, who took action.
Another common opportunity to flex these “stand up” muscles is against any bullying behavior. We talk regularly at home about speaking up about meanness or aggression, whether to the perpetrator or an adult. We explore what it must be like for the person being teased when nobody speaks up, and what it would be like for that person if someone did speak up.
Of course these opportunities don’t need to be in the realm of bullying – even normal peer conflicts give our children chances to notice mean or unfair behavior, bring it up, and figure it out in order to stay friends.
The playground is the perfect test ground for practicing empathy and speaking up. Our job is to ask the questions and have the discussions so we don’t miss these opportunities. Until of course your 9-year-old rolls her eyes and says, “MOM, stop asking so many questions!”
Finally, seize the moments of everyday teaching. A huge part of translating empathy into action starts with understanding what we have in common with people who seem different from us. From a young age, children notice differences. When they ask questions, even socially embarrassing ones, we should answer and explain rather than dismiss.
Since my (lucky?) children have two child psychologists as parents, we share our experiences knowing some of the children who may stand out as different in their classrooms and communities. We explain that all of our brains are special and unique, doing some things better than others. Some brains make it harder to sit still or stay calm when upset. When my children share stories about all of their classmates, I notice they describe behaviors with compassion and understanding, and never label a child for their actions. This gives me faith that our teaching has become their learning.
Connection into action
Let’s be real: I am not an activist, unless declaring my outrage in Facebook posts counts. (It doesn’t.)
As usual, I am holding my children to a higher standard than I hold myself. Am I going to devote my life to stand in front of Swedish politicians to persuade them to care more about the environment? I’m not, even though I would love if my children did.
Maybe what I’m going for here is the concept of making sure we are doing our part for our children to develop a social conscience. As they get older, I want them to feel connected to their communities, a block away and across the world. I want them to convert this connection into action, whether it’s with a school bully or a school policy. I want them to someday realize this is why Mom and Dad constantly listen to the news, not just to torture them.
Okay, I will back off on hoping they are nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by age 16. As long as they act like they could be someday.
What Makes Kids Care? Teaching Gentleness in a Violent World, American Psychological Association
8 Ways to Raise a Socially Conscious Child, Creative Child
When The News Is Scary, What To Say To Kids, Parenting: Difficult Conversations podcast, NPR