An acquaintance of mine, a preschool teacher, describes a time when she saw God’s heart reflected in a child’s actions.
“One of the children in my class became upset and started to cry. Her classmate, Miguel, immediately stopped what he was doing, grabbed a tissue and literally wiped her eyes. He then sat next to her and comforted her. Miguel is filled with a deep sense of compassion and justice. I praised Miguel for that compassion and for caring for his friend.”
1) See experiences through the child’s eyes.
Miguel’s empathy reflected God’s heart toward his friend. He had understanding and insight into his friend’s thoughts and feelings. He took action to comfort her.
Empathy is not an easy skill to use, especially for those who were raised to minimize feelings, or skip over feelings and go right to changing or fixing them. When we practice empathy we communicate to children that we care.
2) Respond with empathy to reflect God’s heart of love toward children:
- That hurts, doesn’t it?
- I’m so sorry.
- Good for you! You did it!
- I remember feeling that way when I was a child–it’s exciting, isn’t it?
- It’s scary to feel all alone.
3) Support the child’s bond with God and God’s bond with the child.
Obviously bonding requires presence. Mere information about someone does not make a strong bond. We reflect God’s heart toward children when we support God’s bond with the child. This is difficult because we’re dealing with a Higher Power who is invisible. But when you are with the child, it is also easy to find God’s presence.
- Look for kind acts and loving gestures wherever you go. Why? Because that’s where God is making an appearance. Develop a family habit to point out the good, not the stupid or rude.
- Notice and verbalize signs of God’s love: in nature, in movies, music, children’s literature, in happy surprises.
- Focus on God’s nurturing, comforting, gentle presence in difficult times and give God the benefit of the doubt.
Tweetable: Understand & support a child’s bond with God even when you don’t have one, or don’t have the same kind. Click to Tweet
Our foster daughter Angie had the most sympathy of any person I’ve ever known. At age 14, her spontaneous, heartfelt expressions of sadness for someone else’s misfortune far surpassed my own.
Angie and I had occasion to drive through some hardscrabble neighborhoods in Los Angeles County. From time to time we would see a man lying on the sidewalk and she would say out loud with great feeling, “Oh! Poor thing!”
Angie’s sympathy moved her to pray for hurting people.
Sometimes I’d ask her, “What is your prayer for this person?” Other times, Angie would say, “We should pray for that man,” and say a short prayer out loud (integrated right into our conversation) about her hope that he finds food today or a better place to sleep.
Prayer fosters a sense of security.
In his book Love in a Fearful Land, Henri Nouwen writes, “Prayer is the way to both the heart of God and the heart of the world.” Prayer is a word that describes a relationship.
Praise children for being willing to pray. They will sometimes pray things that you know are unrealistic or inappropriate. It is up to us to teach them a different way so that they gain trust in God’s goodness and sidestep the disillusionment (which sometimes lasts a lifetime) that God didn’t answer the prayer — God doesn’t care — God doesn’t even exist.
Prayer helps a child be calmer.
Prayer can be one action children take when they feel sympathy for strangers. Perhaps they see something like a car accident firsthand or hear upsetting national or world news. When you allow them to make a loving and prayerful response, you are helping the child be calmer. And reflect back to the child his or her admirable intention that some good comes to the stranger(s).
Tweetable: Allowing kids to make a prayerful response to upsetting events helps them be calmer. Click to Tweet
Unstructured summer days lie ahead. What activities can we use to enrich kids’ lives while having fun at the same time?
Strengthen a child’s empathy this summer and you may see these results in the upcoming school year*:
- more relaxed physically, with lower levels of stress hormones
- pay attention better and learn more effectively
- fewer behavior problems, such as aggressiveness
Children learn empathy very well by doing acts of service.
For example, you make a donation to a food pantry and you discuss with your children about how others are hungry. Sheila Sjolseth shares her experience.
The service acts where I see the most distinctive difference in my boys are when we interact with others in our community—those acts where they helped someone in a completely different situation than their own. By far, the acts of service that have been the most profound were when we helped:
- the elderly in nursing homes
- those who are experiencing homelessness
- those who have great medical need
- animals in shelters
Beyond taking in a neighbor’s trash cans or holding the door for someone–
–good as these are, empathy building means finding experiences where kids will see the needs of others and choose to meet them.
- Prepare and take healthy treats to the fire department or police station.
- Write a thank-you note or picture for the trash truck driver.
- Make a chemo care package for a family friend.
- Do an internet search for more ideas….
- Get ready. Brainstorm who we want to help. Talk about how the person’s life is different from the child’s. What can we expect?
- Keep it short. Think 10 minutes (not counting prep time).
- Show them how. Model the behavior you’d like to see them copy.
- Let them help. Even let them take the lead as they get ideas and want to initiate service.
- Reflect and debrief. Sheila asks her kids: “Was it what you expected? Why or why not? How did your service help the other person?” And I add, “How did you like doing it? What did the other person say or do to show how they felt?”
Try it once and see if it’s worth the effort.
*Harris, P.L. Children and Emotion: The Development of Psychological Understanding, 1989.
Tweetable: Do summer activities here to strengthen a child’s empathy and you might lower their stress hormones. Click to Tweet