Love vs. Empathy

It's February, which means we'll be seeing a lot of red and pink decorations covering the aisles of our local stores as retailers try to convince us to buy something special for that someone special. Flowers or candy? Jewelry or candles? Perhaps just a simple card. Whether or not you see Valentine's Day as truly a special day, or the ultimate consumer holiday, love is the message that is being sent. As parents, we try to teach our children to love one another. We tell each other "I love you" and await to hear it in return. Love has been the inspiration for many songs, poems, and films. It truly gets top billing and is arguably considered to be a hallmark of our human-ness. But what about empathy? Simply put, love can be regarded as a feeling of warm, tender, personal affection that develops for another over time. Love, in this sense, presents as a rather passive process of which we are not always fully aware. Empathy, on the other hand, seems a bit more sophisticated in its development. It presents as more of an active, deliberate process. It can be defined as the ability to imagine yourself as another - to be able to place yourself in that person's particular situation or to assume that person's particular point-of-view. Furthermore, in order to truly do this, you would need to have some knowledge of that person and his or her situation. Once acquired, you would then possess a keen understanding of what it must be like to be that person. You would experience the benefit of a shared perspective or emotion. Can you imagine decisions being made, policy being created, and generally being guided by this process? Wow. So how do we teach our children empathy anyway? Well, let's all start by modeling such behavior for children, whether they are our own children or not. Let's help them imagine what it would be like to put ourselves into the shoes of others. This could be achieved through simple observation and discussion with our children. Observing others in real-time may be ideal, but the same effect can often be achieved by reading to them or sitting with them while watching a show. Let's teach them active listening so that they may truly hear what others have to say. The process of active listening is really quite straight-forward:
  1. Stop what you're doing
  2. Focus/Engage the other person
  3. Anticipate/Look forward to what is being said
  4. Replay, Analyze and paraphrase what you've heard
Let's help them to develop strong value systems and the courage to enact them. We also need to help our children to develop the ability to regulate their own emotions so that they may approach the process of developing empathy in a calm, grounded fashion. Finally, they will need to practice kindness and collaboration with those around them. These attributes serve as the foundation for the patience and determination that they will need in order to give emapthy-building a fighting chance. Happy Valentine's Day! Dr. S