Teaching empathy can help our children to find success in life
Greed is dead. Empathy is in. The opening lines of Frans De Waal's renowned book, 'The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society,' show us the new way of thinking. No longer can we protest that 'It's dog eat dog out there; Darwin made me do it!' Instead, De Waal argues that we have completely overstated the human instinct for selfishness and that most of us are really quite nice.
From giving to charity to volunteering our time with the local GAA, most people are willing to help others, to be kind and to seek fairness in our lives. And so the news that the UNESCO child and family research centre at NUI Galway recommends that we teach children empathy in schools has been, on the whole, greeted with satisfaction - albeit with the odd eye-roll as we can't help but think that it's all a long way from our day when empathy hadn't really been created and so we had to struggle with the Tuiseal Ginideach instead.
It is hard for many people to value the soft skills - they are just about willing to accept a degree in psychotherapy but would look cynically upon a diploma in empathy. And yet, without a shadow of a doubt, despite the masses of studying I have done on evidence-based psychological theory, my skill in empathy is the most valuable quality I can offer clients in my work as a psychotherapist. The intense relief a troubled person can feel when they finally meet someone who grasps what it is like to walk in their shoes can have a powerful and lasting impact. However, it's not only psychotherapists who need skills in empathy; it is well documented that empathy is a key predictor of success in many careers and is positively linked to effective job performance.
The more cynical among us will be greatly relieved to know that this isn't part of the dumbing down of our educational system, with secret plans afoot to teach our children vague skills such as generosity or patience in the future. Research shows that teaching empathy to schoolchildren promotes greater intellectual achievement. Learning how to be empathic helps to reduce stress in children and this in turn significantly improves children's cognitive abilities. Children who have suffered a certain level of emotional trauma are a mind-blowing 32 times more likely to have learning or behavioural problems than children who have led an untroubled life and so, by teaching children empathy, distressed children will learn how to process their experiences, they will have a greater sense of perspective, and their ability to learn will be significantly improved.
However, the primary reason why teaching empathy is recommended for schoolchildren isn't to help troubled children achieve greater success; rather, it is primarily to help combat bullying.
Bullying, just like empathy, simply didn't get much airtime until recent years, but now it is suddenly everywhere. There is good reason for this: the impact of bullying can last a whole lifetime. Indeed, it is simply astonishing to me how many clients I meet who trace issues back to being bullied in childhood.
But bullying is a complex issue. Many bullies don't realise the damage they are causing to their victims - you see, they haven't got enough empathy to figure this out. And in turn, many victims of bullies don't understand why they are being targeted - they, in turn, haven't the emotional intelligence to determine how to avoid the malevolent eye of the bully. We all prefer to keep bullying simple: the bully is in the wrong and the victim is in the right. But, as with all issues involving human nature, it is rarely as simple as this. Both the bully and the sufferer need a greater empathic understanding of what makes us tick - the bully will be less likely to bully when they realise the hurt they are creating; and the bullied will be less likely to irritate the bully. The more people who understand how their behaviour impacts on others, the easier we will all find it to get along. As Atticus Finch in 'To Kill a Mocking Bird' put it: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."
So how can we teach empathy to kids who won't benefit from this opportunity to learn empathy in school? Speculating about how others are feeling when you are out and about with your kids is the easiest way to teach empathic understanding. Parents can further teach their children empathy simply by watching TV with them and wondering aloud what it must be like to be the person on the latest reality show. Role-playing can also be a very effective method to help create an empathic understanding - young children already do this when they pretend to be mammy and daddy. Empathy involves entering into another person's world, being that person for a moment.
If you have the ability to do this you will be better able to anticipate and fulfil a person's needs, you will more easily sell a product to them, and you will be better able to understand their wishes and their complaints. The benefits of empathy are endless - it gives people a more profound understanding of others and with this knowledge they can find their place in the world more easily.
Some people are naturally empathic. Others are not. But empathy can be learned. Teaching empathy will give children more profound understanding, more compassion and greater intellectual ability. What's not to like about that?
Stella O'Malley is a psychotherapist and author of 'Cotton Wool kids: What's making Irish parents paranoid?'