My husband and I were recently discussing a major goal in the raising of children: the development of empathy. We want our children to be empathetic. As a matter of fact, I see empathy as crucial to maturity. If a child can't grow to see outside herself and to "feel for someone else," she will not be an effective parent or spouse or friend or minister. You cannot nurture or love or serve without seeking to understand.
Adults who have little or no capacity for empathy are emotionally stuck. They are children. They are so self-absorbed that they cannot relate. And often, they are unaware of this handicap. Our job as parents is to ensure that our children grow into an awareness of other people and learn to empathize.
Like so many other things, we "teach" empathy by modeling it. When we empathize, particularly when we are sensitive to our children, they learn to be sensitive to others. And we praise empathy. When we see a child nurturing a sibling or even a pet, we call it what it is and we encourage more of the same behavior. There are many, many oppoprtunities to develop empathy in a large family.
I've noticed that some children have a natural tendency towards empathy and it takes just a little fine tuning on my part to encourage virtue. Some children, though, are not as inclined. We have to talk about empathy more. We have to point out opportunities to understand and to serve. And we have to correct self-centered behavior frequently.
Last night, I witnessed such tender empathy that I was inspired by my child. Nicholas and Stephen are 22 months apart. But they are nearly the same size. Stephen, who is older, is actually a bit smaller. They are inseparable. And they delight in pretending they are twins. They both have asthma. Nicholas has had a rough road of it lately and has required frequent treatments using a nebulizer. Last night, as he was holding the mask up to his face, his head began to nod and his eyelids grew heavy. Stephen noticed, took the mask in his hand, and helped Nicky to put his head on the pillow. There Stephen sat for twenty minutes more until all the medicine was gone and his best friend in the world slept soundly.