Parents want their teens to engage in acts of empathy, not acts of delinquency. Right? Of course. A study using data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian children analyzed the data gathered on 3,865 children (ages 12-years-old to 17-years-old) over a period of 4 years to explain a great way to teach children empathy. This study found that children who perceived their parents as giving empathic support were less likely to engage in delinquent behaviors like drawing graffiti, destroying property, and using threats or force to take money from another person. Material support and mere presence did not have as great an impact on reducing these delinquent behaviors as did empathic support. It seemed that empathic support from parents modeled empathy for the teens, nurturing the development of empathy in their lives.
What does this mean for us as parents? It means that we need to practice empathy if we want our teens to practice empathy. As you develop, nurture, and practice empathy in your life, your children are more likely to as well. They will develop the ability to acknowledge and understand the feelings of others and act accordingly as they witness you doing the same. In other words, nurture empathy in your life and you nurture empathy in your children’s lives. So, how can you nurture and model empathy in your life?
- Avoid jumping to conclusions or making snap judgments. In general, things are not as simple as they appear. Rather than making assumptions, consider what factors may contribute to other people’s behaviors and actions. Think about what their deeper intent might be. Things are generally not as simple as they appear.
- Learn from other people, especially those different than you. Listen to people who come from different backgrounds and even have different beliefs than you. You don’t have to agree. Simply listen and seek to understand. Learn how they “came to their conclusions.” Learn to communicate your ideas and beliefs in a manner that invites dialogue rather than sounding judgmental.
- Look for commonalities with other people, even those who are different than you. I believe you will find most people come together when we consider our common vulnerability to suffering, our common desire for connection and love, and our pursuit of security and belonging. Consider how you might connect with people in these (and other) common aspects of our humanity.
- Learn from stories and films. As you read a story or watch a movie, “get inside” the character’s mind. Seek to understand their motives and their actions based on what you learn of them through the story.
- Broaden your range of experiences. Meet people from different cultures and economic levels. Develop relationships and learn from each other.
- Perform random acts of kindness. No explanation needed. Show kindness every chance you get.
- Practice each of the tips above toward your family members in a responsive, warm, and nurturing way. Rather than jumping to conclusions when something happens, think and listen. Take time to learn from your spouse, your parents, and even your children. Look for commonalities with each of your family members, especially when you hit upon topics and themes of disagreement. Show kindness to your family every day.
- Build an emotional vocabulary. The broader a person’s vocabulary for speaking about emotions, the more aware they can become of their own emotions and the better able they are to empathize with another’s emotion.
As you practice these tips toward your family and in view of your family, your children will more likely grow in empathy…not delinquency.