I’ve been married for 14 years, a parent for 13 years, and a teacher for eight years. I can honestly say that in each of these endeavors displaying empathy is a pillar for success. Often, I engage in conversations with my own children, students, or their parents about how to navigate the tricky social waters of adolescence and childhood. In nearly every conversation, at some point, I need to engage in an empathetic approach or I kindly provide feedback that will hopefully point the individual toward empathy.
We’ve all been in this position though, haven’t we? How do we show empathy? Better yet how do we begin to TEACH empathy? In a time when having conversations and truly knowing a person’s heart is so important, learning the power of empathy has never been more critical. I certainly did not show up to my classroom door, many moons ago, as empathetic as I am now. But through hearing stories, engaging in the beautiful work of partnering with families, and placing a priority on growing the hearts of my students, I feel like my journey is progressing. I haven’t arrived, but I am deeply grateful I left.
I believe empathic children can learn and go anywhere. As we approach summer break I know that for myself and the teachers I work with, we would love to see our students come in next fall ready to learn and interact successfully with the people around them. If you are a caregiver and have some time this summer, here are some helpful ways to teach your student empathy over the summer break.
1) Give your child the gift of YOUR time.
I am not perfect at this. I get busy, especially during certain times of the school year. I find that I have to schedule time with my family and with my students. I need to be urgently intentional. Dinner around the table as a family is a beautiful way to cultivate empathetic living. We are grateful to be embarking on the teen years as parents. How many of us can agree that teenagers aren’t necessarily going to volunteer information about social interactions or how the school day went? I love that we’ve worked hard to create a safe place in our home for conversations to happen, the hard and the lovely. It’s in these moments when you press in and ask questions, without judgment, that your teen is more willing to do life with you alongside. Some of the best parenting advice I’ve heard to navigate the teen years is to keep your kids talking and as parents keep listening. Yes, that may mean late nights waiting for your kids to arrive home from the dance or the football game. But the memories cultivated or the words spoken during those late hours will be priceless. And when your child looks back on their teen years in your home, what a treasure for them to think fondly of the safe place you created.
2) Be a consistent presence of comfort and safety.
I remember when I was having a few minutes of share time in my classroom and a student said something that made me catch my breath. As soon as possible I spoke to them quietly to let them know I was there if they needed anything. I looked them right in the eye and said, “I’m so glad you are here today, let me know if I can help with any of your worries.” Later in the day that same student came, of their own accord, and shared with me a very real worry they were having. Now, in my adult mind, the worry was not much different than others I encounter in 2nd grade. But the courage my student showed to come speak with me privately was the main point. I was building comfort and safety for them. I believe in my core that the true work of teaching is more about the heart than anything else. And it’s something I delight in.
So as you treasure your gifts of time this summer, remember the comfort and safety you can provide to the children and young adults around you. Fostering, what I’ve heard called, the best “home court advantage” for your kiddo can be a wonderful foundation for empathetic living.
3. Guide your child’s thinking toward understanding another person’s journey. Even your own!
Last week I was reading a rich peace of literature with my daughter. She and I were talking about the journey of one of the characters and an injustice that was done in the book. I simply said, “I wonder what that felt like?” Her eyes welled up with tears and all she could say was, “It feels awful!” With my own teary eyes I worked to provide comfort, clarity, and understanding about the life that character might have lived. Later that night, going to bed, I was so glad I had spent time reading with her because if I hadn’t, we both might have missed the teachable moment. The opportunities are everywhere especially during the summer. When we can teach kids how to see a challenge or a behavior through another person’s eyes, empathy happens organically.
4. When you mess up, say sorry (making mistakes is normal, teach kids how to build resiliency by getting back up after a mistake).
I love the pace and routine summer time can provide. It’s one of the reasons I chose my profession. Creating meaningful summer memories with my family is something I look forward to every year. But with the routine, and the close living of summer, mistakes and mishaps in behavior are going to happen. I need to lead by example here with my fair share of “I’m sorries” too. Be ready to guide your young person through their mistake. Help them take the reigns and accountability of their behavior to build the skills to recover and do better next time. The power of our humanity shown in loving, real, challenging moments can be some of the best taught lessons for our children. The longs days of summer provide us with the glorious opportunity to embrace these types of teachable moments.
5. Regularly practice gratitude: gratitude can change any situation.
Studies tell us, the more grateful a person, the happier they are. Fostering an attitude of gratefulness within your home or classroom isn’t something that can only happen during the holidays each year. Practicing gratitude with your kids around the table, in the car on a road trip, or on a hike, all helps them find contentment and rest within their situation. The more we practice this, the more our kids will see it for themselves. I started this regularly in my classroom in January. Eventually my students were asking daily for gratitude practice time. They so badly wanted to tell me what they saw around them, and what they were grateful for. As we teach empathy, creating a sensitivity toward the life being lived around us is just as important as embracing what we currently have. Gratitude practice begins this work in the mind of a child.
6. Get your child out of their comfort zone (off devices) learning about others.
It’s probably safe to say, some of the best lessons you learned as a young person were when you pushed yourself and got outside your comfort zone. The summer is a perfect time to embrace this challenge with your kids. When I was growing up I lived in a small town and in middle school I had a paper route with my brothers. It was an easy enough summer job, aside from the early mornings, but it turned into a monumental task that taught me resilience and responsibility. The weekly bike rides through my neighborhood, getting to know the people who lived there, watching vegetable gardens grow, noticing when they were on vacation because their paper was still out from last week, all added up to me understanding the way other people lived. While yes, faithfully completing the task weekly was a struggle for my 13-year-old self, the opportunity to simply observe life around me was a treasured benefit I didn’t expect.
Help your child set a goal for themselves this summer that will push them to learn about others. Maybe it’s through reading literature, volunteering at a local non- profit, serving in the community, mowing lawns, or just finding simple ways for them to give back using their natural gifts. Helping our young people live in the moment rather than through the eyes of their smartphone camera is, in many ways, the challenge of our generation as parents and caregivers. But the work is worth doing. There are many approaches to fostering screen free opportunities to learn and give back to others. Perhaps the best way to start is to simply ask the question, “How do you want to learn about others this summer?”
I’m no expert, but I’ve chosen to embark on a journey that edges me closer to the heart of others. Choosing to leave for the Path2Empathy will be one of the best decisions you ever make. This summer, embrace your chance to start the journey toward empathetic living with your kids. The best part, you don’t even have to pack, just leave…and take the people you love with you.
Edi Pettegrew- Wife, Mom, Teacher, Blogger, Photographer, and Lover of Hearts.