From the time your six-month-old takes offers you a bite of her drool-covered teething biscuit, you are in a unique position to teach your child that most civilized of human characteristics: Empathy.
Empathy is easy to define: it is the ability to understand and share other people's feelings, to put yourself in the other guy's shoes. Unfortunately, many people grow to adulthood without ever having mastered this technique – you can identify them easily on the freeway during rush hour.
Its rarity notwithstanding, empathy is actually pretty easy to teach. You do it when you take a bite of a cookie and then offer a bite to your baby. You do it when your baby offers you that drooly cookie in return and you say, “Ohhh, THANK you!” and take a “bite.”When your child sees you stopping to help your elderly neighbor carry in her groceries, you are teaching empathy by example. You teach it when you teach sharing, not by snatching a child's toys away and saying, “It's your sister's turn now” but by asking, “Do you think your sister wants to play?”
A child will learn empathy quickly if you make a point of using it yourself. It's easy to lose your temper at people who treat you rudely; however, if your child hears you muse, “That man in the library must have been very upset to talk to the librarian like that. What do you suppose made him feel so bad?” then your child will begin to try to see other people's behavior as a result of their individual feelings and motivations, instead of as a reflection on his.
This is an important developmental step, because young children think that the world revolves around them and that everyone is always watching. The realization that everyone else is wrapped up in their own little worlds too is one that many people don't come to until their late teens – if, indeed, they ever do. A child who realizes that everyone has a unique perspective is a child who won't take power-crazy teachers or playground bullies personally.
It is possible to overdo things; that childish self-centric view of the universe can lead a kid to think that every homeless beggar, every one-eared stray cat and all air pollution is a direct result of them not caring enough. You know your child better than anyone, so use a light touch if you think they have an overactive guilt gland; empathy is one thing, but a 3-year-old sobbing, “Now all the tigers will be thirsty because of me!” because Sesame Street taught her that people wasting water will ruin the planet – that's going overboard.
Children who learn empathy grow into kind people. I am proud to say that Red, age 5, sent six months' worth of saved-up allowance (about $5, all the money he had in the world) to a local charity that provides meals for the homeless. He had been saving it to buy Christmas presents but he heard a fund-raising radio commercial for this charity and wanted to contribute.
Two days ago, Sassy – almost 17 and gorgeous – had a foot cut off her waist-length golden mane and sent the hair to Locks of Love. A friend in middle school had inspired her, and she “wanted to send it somewhere it could do some good, not just toss it in the trash.” Believe me, greater love hath NO teenage girl, than that she will chop off all her hair and donate it to make wigs for children who are bald from cancer treatments.
I think my work here is done.
(By the way, if you want to donate hair to Locks of Love, go to: http://www.locksoflove.org/