This is the second part of a series on the “Joy of giving”. Through this series, we hope to discuss the various ways in which a more generous, empathetic society can be created. We welcome your stories, experiences, pictures and videos on the same theme.
Empathy denotes the ability to perceive other people’s emotions and imagine what others’ may be feeling or thinking. Scientists state that infants as young as 9 months of age are capable of exhibiting signs of empathy. They also postulate that infants under the age of 1 year often react to the pain and distress of others in the same manner as if they were distressed. Toddlers older than 1 years of age find ways of personalizing others’ pain through simple gestures such as bringing their toys to cheer up another or checking themselves for injury in the event of another’s accident.  By the time children reach 8 years of age they are capable of grasping another person’s life situation in all its complexity.
“Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity.”- Ian McEwan
Empathy serves an evolutionary purpose, it allowed Homo sapiens to live together as a society and is the basis on which our morality rests. Studies indicate that children who are more empathetic tend to do better in schools and grow up to be more well rounded, successful adults. Scientists are also finding evidence of a correlation between lack of empathy and psychological disorders such as chronic schizophrenia.
Like intelligence, empathy is a trait that improves with practice and shrinks with disuse. While empathy may be innate in most humans, manifestations of it are gradually learnt through observations and lessons taught to us by our parents, family, teachers and peers. As children we were scolded when we were cruel or selfish; we were appreciated when we were thoughtful or kind. Those lessons helped shape our notions of justice and goodness. Today, a child grows up with a multitude of outside influences, some of which remain beyond the control of a parent or guardian. How can you then ensure that your ward is learning the values of compassion and kindness? Here are a few simple recommendations from child psychologists and parenting counselors:
- As the first and perhaps most important role model, parents can shape a child’s personality. Leading by example as opposed to enforcing your will can ensure that the lessons are imbibed and understood. The way you treat people around you, be it your household help or your neighbours, can influence the way your child interacts with society.
- Let your child see you be empathetic and generous. Volunteer for your favourite charity along with your child.
- Encourage your child to share his or her belongings. Be careful however to not pressurize him or her. Children often draw emotional support from their possessions especially their favourite toys or clothes, and may take a little longer to share.
- Encourage your child to give away a percentage of his pocket money. This will not only instil generosity but also help promote financial discipline. You can also help him raise small funds by paying him or her for doing small household chores such as watering plants or laying the dinner table.
- Read or narrate stories about generous characters to your child. Indian mythology and history has plenty of characters you can draw inspiration from.
That’s what the experts suggest. Now, tell us the ways in which you encourage your child to be empathetic. Or share the many ways in which your elders taught you important life lessons.
 Source: Huffington Post, 7th September 2012, From Mine to Ours: Nurturing Empathy in Children
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