Teaching kids to identify empathy is to make the distinction that what you are feeling is not the same as what someone else is feeling, writes David Ebenbach.
The other day I told my son, age seven, that he might have an empathy problem. I didn’t mean that he has too little—I meant that he might have too much.
We had just watched a movie together, in 3-D and IMAX, and I was rediscovering the fact that IMAX basically makes me seasick. I spent most of the movie staring at my feet and trying to calm my stomach. Afterward, I explained the whole thing to my son—and he told me that he felt kind of dizzy himself. I recognized his ailment; I’ve seen it before. When his mother or I get a sore throat or a headache or the like, he tends to suddenly feel his very own similar problem coming on—at least until he gets distracted and, having forgotten about his parents’ complaints, returns immediately to full health. And so I could see my nausea echoing in his dizziness.
That’s when I told him that he might have an empathy problem.
Certainly his parents do. Both my wife and I have spent our lives reacting intensely to the internal states of people around us. We do this not because we’re wonderful people; it’s more like a reflex, something automatic. Nonetheless, the reflex has obviously been good in some ways. First of all, empathy does make it a little harder to be a jerk (though I have too often found that it’s not foolproof). It’s also no doubt the reason that I became a writer and my wife a rabbi, careers where a certain amount of sensitivity helps you do what you need to do every day, callings that are so connected to empathy that they ideally spread it to others who may need a little more. And our son is, no surprise, a sweet and highly perceptive boy who’s already writing poetry.
But there are downsides, too. What empathy can mean, really, is experiencing other people’s feelings as though they were more or less your own. It can mean that you feel personally responsible for other people’s moods. You can get yanked around by the volatile emotional world that, unless we become hermits, surrounds us all. It means, very often, becoming the kind of person with whom people readily share their pain, and taking it on as your own; empathy can make pain contagious. I remember days where my mood collapsed after seeing a visibly sad or angry person out somewhere—a stranger—and I know I don’t want my child to suffer in a similar way.
Of course, some of this is genetic; depression runs in my family and maybe that manifests itself as empathy sometimes. My son may well have to contend with that. But I also think that this is one of those occasions where parents can pass on the benefit of their experience. After all, it’s a good system, the one where parents are (by necessity) older, and therefore more experienced, than their children. It took decades for my wife and me to recognize the way we’re affected by other people, and to learn how to protect ourselves a little, to distinguish our inner lives from the inner life of other people. Maybe we can help our son enough to save him a few decades of struggle.
What I said to my son after that movie was that empathy is extremely good in a lot of ways, and that it’ll help him to understand other people and to be kind and thoughtful, but that it’s also incredibly important to actually know what he feels, and to know that it isn’t exactly what someone else is feeling—not even when the someone else is one of his parents. I wanted him to know that he is his own person, and can’t be exchanged for someone else’s misery or tantrum or joy.
There’s a lot ahead of our son; he still has a lot of learning to do if he’s really going to distinguish between himself and others, and some of that he’ll have to do on his own. But in time—maybe less time if his parents help—he’ll discover that this will not only make him happier but also, very likely, more generous and more truly compassionate. Because it’s like the airplane rule for seatbelts: you can’t help someone else until you’re firmly secured yourself.
—photo by Leonid Mamchenkov/Flickr