Our home has become band-aid obsessed. Somewhere along the way, our children discovered that band-aids have magical healing powers, whether there be blood or no blood, scratch or no scratch. Now, band-aids are one of the staple items on our weekly grocery “wish” list. My three-year-old even recognizes their value. She has stashes of band-aids conveniently located all around the house. She is on constant alert, watching and listening for signs and signals that someone might be in need of one…or two…

What is it about band-aids? Is it their appealing sticker-like quality? Is it their fashion sense, appealing to the younger Dora and Spongebob fans?

Maybe, on some level, band-aids cause us to appreciate what someone may be feeling. “Let me have a look. Ouch! That must really hurt.” Under the band-aid solution lies a powerful virtue: empathy.

Empathy has been described as the ability to “walk in someone else’s shoes” and understand their experience. It stems from knowing that, despite our differences, we share a common humanity with all its emotions. With empathy, we view others, as described by author Linda Kavelin-Popov, with “compassionate curiosity” and consider the impact of our choices and actions.

Anchoring the Roots of Empathy
Since she was only 18 months old, I’ve watched my fourth child rush over to a hurt or upset sibling, brush their tears away and gently burrow her head into their side. It seems to come instinctively and naturally to her. My three older children in turn love to take care of their little sister, doting, protecting, defending, tending to her when she is hurt or upset and helping her when she is frustrated. “Are you okay, sweetie?” It is a phrase that I often hear my three-year-old ask of the baby, gazing endearingly as she strokes her cheek.

These examples speak to the philosophy behind Mary Gordon’s Roots of Empathy school program. With this program, a parent and their infant visit a classroom nine times over the school year. Children in the classroom learn empathy through the parent’s role modeling as well as through their own experiences and interactions in understanding what the baby is feeling and what the baby needs. With very real lessons of caring, students learn how to identify and reflect on feelings—the baby’s, theirs and eventually those of others. This powerful program shows us that empathy can take root in all children. Those roots are anchored in positive parental role modeling and the development of emotional literacy skills.

From the Inside Out
“I’m scared!” my son hollers, just as my mind and body finally surrender to that one perfect moment when sleep begins to take hold. “Don’t be ridiculous! There’s nothing to be afraid of! Just go back to sleep!” my husband and I shout back from our room down the hall. Night after night of disrupted sleep takes its toll. But is what my son feeling ridiculous? Is it a matter of him “just” going back to sleep? In dismissing his feelings, what have we taught him or failed to teach him?

The work of empathy builds from within. In order for a child to learn and feel empathy, their own needs must first be nurtured. Perhaps it is similar to the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow who emphasized that children need to first feel safety, love and belonging if they are to acquire and achieve higher skills. What this means is ensuring that our children’s own emotional needs are being met. Do they have secure relationships that they can trust? Can they safely express their emotions? Can their emotions be understood and supported by the caregivers in their life?

Empathetic Children Need Empathetic Parents
Beyond allowing our children to feel as they do, we as parents need to hone our own empathy skills. One night, as I snuggled my son in bed, he very sadly said to me, “I want a baby brother. I don’t even want any presents, all I want in the world is a brother.” I immediately launched into logic mode. “Well it is not possible for Mama and Dada to have any more children, and even if we could what makes you think it would be a boy baby and if it wasn’t a boy, can you imagine another sister? You already complain about having too many sisters. Maybe we can find someone to be a little brother to you. Who do we know who has little boys?” I paused to find my son’s head now lying on my lap, which was moist from his tears. “But I’m so lonely,” he sniffled. Then I realized that my approach had been completely wrong. I had not truly listened to my son. As a discerning listener I might have pulled out my magic word “What…” and asked him, “What would be the best thing about having baby brother?” And had I used this tactic, I would have understood and felt his loneliness. Instead of problem-solving, all I needed to do was to meet my son where he was and walk along with him. To show him some empathy: “Let me have a look. Ouch! That must really hurt.”

Whole Body Listening
Last year, I sat in on my son’s kindergarten class and realized that I had missed out on a huge lesson, or perhaps I had learned it but forgotten it along the way. Whole Body Listening: Ears are listening, mouth is closed, eyes are looking, hands are still, feet are down and still. I asked myself: Do I do this with my children? When my children are chatting away to me a mile a minute, how many times do I find myself saying “Yep” or “Uh huh” to placate them while my attention is focused on other things—unloading the dishwasher, answering emails or simply being distracted inside my head. How many times do I block out their chatter or fail to give them eye contact when they are talking? Multi-tasking has come to be held with such admiration and eye contact increasingly underrated, both to the disservice of genuine interactions with others. As the familiar play on words suggests, emotional intimacy = “in to me see.” As parents, unless we pause and listen to our children with our ears, our eyes and our hearts, we fail to develop the “in to me see” that is so essential for true understanding and empathy. And if we can’t show true understanding, how will they ever know it themselves?

Stripping Right Down
Marshall Rosenberg, in his work on non-violent communication, describes dividing his workshop participants into two groups. Each group is given the task of writing down a dialogue between themselves and another person in a conflict situation. The only difference, unbeknownst to the participants, is that in one group the other person is a child and in the second group, the other person is a neighbour. When compared, the differences in the dialogues highlight how less respectful and compassionate we often are with our own children than with other people. Would I ever yell at, embarrass or shame another adult? How would I feel if someone were to treat me that way? So why would I do this to my children? I am becoming mindful of the fact that teaching empathy to my children begins by stripping down our parent-child relationship to a more fundamental and more respectful human-to-human relationship.

The Balancing Act
Negotiating the seas of my children’s emotional worlds is the most challenging part of parenting for me. The waters are often rough and unpredictable. Given the above discussion, I acknowledge the importance of validating my children’s feelings and helping them to self-regulate. However, I don’t tolerate the never-ending temper tantrum and while I would love to give them my 100 per cent attention 24/7, the reality is that I do need to get other tasks accomplished. Fostering understanding in our children also involves helping them to acknowledge and empathize with us as parents. We can promote this end by openly sharing our own feelings with our children. Also, we need to access wisdom, discernment and assertiveness in setting boundaries and expectations for behaviour. A good example is negotiating with our children time when we can be fully attentive to them.

The ABCs of Emotional Literacy
My son is an extroverted feeler—sadness, frustration, anger, jealousy, joyfulness—every emotion exudes from him. It can be contagious, overwhelming, irritating and often times explosive. In trying to help my son self-regulate and appreciate his emotions, I have come to realize that part of the challenge is that he is still very “limbic” and doesn’t know what he is feeling. It may not be as easy as ABC, but emotional literacy is just as important as positive parental role modeling when it comes to nurturing empathy. At the outset, children need to be equipped with an emotional vocabulary if they are to interpret emotional cues and become sensitive to other peoples’ feelings. They need to learn the words if they are to understand the language of empathy. Once children have the words to connect to emotions, they can then begin to become sensitive to the feelings of others and eventually develop the ability to take another person’s point of view.

Michelle Borba’s book Building Moral Intelligence is an excellent resource on how to nurture our children’s capacity for empathy. Here are a few of her suggestions:

• Incorporate feeling questions into your conversations and interactions—How you do think that felt?

• Make the association between feelings and needs—What do you think they need in order to feel better?

• Colour your tone of voice with emotion and feeling when you read to your children.

• Draw attention to non-verbal feeling cues in books and other everyday experiences, for example, facial expressions, postures and the tone of voice of people expressing different emotions.

• Seize teachable moments to model and stimulate empathetic feelings.

• Praise sensitive, kind actions and reinforce them as soon as they happen.

• Highlight the effects of sensitivity and kind acts and point out the difference and impact they have made.

• Share your own feelings.

• Role-play and have your children “switch roles” to “feel” the other side.

• Help children discover what they have in common with other people.

• As a family, volunteer to help people who are less fortunate.

Our work as parents is full and there always seems to be so much groundwork that must be laid. But if we can set empathy as the cornerstone of our children’s foundation, the other pieces will fall into place. Helpfulness, tolerance, respect, understanding, caring, fairness, flexibility, generosity, humility, patience, appreciation, compassion, forgiveness—it all begins with empathy.

Janine Fernandes-Hayden is an educator and Salt Spring Island mum of four children. She hosts a parent and kids radio show called “The Beanstalk” at Green 107.9 FM or online at web link. She is also a trained Virtues Project Facilitator.