Teaching Tolerance Starts with Empathy

Q: My 9-year-old daughter sometimes says things or asks questions that surprise and concern me because they are based on false assumptions about someone who is different than herself. For example, she might repeat a negative comment about someone whose cultural background or religion is different than hers. How can I best help her be tolerant and respectful of differences?

A: Although much in unknown about the causes of intolerance, we can discuss one factor that we know does play an important part in developing tolerance: the ability to empathize.

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand another’s point of view. Empathetic people feel a connection and compassion for others with different perspectives and histories. They are therefore more likely to be tolerant and affirming of differences among people, whether on the basis of race, gender, sexual preference, religion, physical and mental disabilities, or other differences that do not bear on the worth or goodness of a person.

How can you foster empathy?

Children must be taught how to be empathetic. Sometimes it is relatively easy for a child to empathize with another. When children are confronted with situations similar to ones that they have experienced, it is easier for them to be empathetic. In these cases, children can map their experience onto someone else’s experiences, making the assumption that someone else feels about as they do.

We use this approach to introduce young children to empathy, asking them to imagine how they would feel in a situation so that they can understand the feelings of others. We might ask a 2-year-old, “How do you feel when someone takes your toy? That’s how Maria feels.”

Children (and adults) face a greater challenge when the experience and relevant background of someone else is increasingly different from their own. For example, young people find it difficult to know what it feels like to age, and it is hard to feel what it is like to be unable to walk, hear or see if you can do all these things. This kind of empathy requires work, a kind of creativity that we call “an imaginative leap.”

Your challenge as a parent is to guide your child in building a capacity to empathize with experiences that are increasingly different than his or her own. The key to doing this is to first dignify the experience of another, and then take the next step of helping your children imagine what it might feel like inside that other person.

Ways you might accomplish this are:

– First, understand and respect your daughter’s feelings and point of view. Don’t trivialize the reasons she does things, such as by saying that she is only seeking attention or implying that she doesn’t feel what she says she feels. As she experiences your empathy with her, she will learn about empathy through firsthand experience, and will be increasingly able to emulate your empathy.

– Model the imaginative leaps that put you inside another person. Being compassionate is important, but being specific about how it would feel to be inside that person is also very important.

If you see a homeless person on the street, take a moment to say how difficult life must be for the person; he or she might worry about whether there will be enough to eat tomorrow or whether tonight will be freezing cold or rainy. You will find many such opportunities to humanize others, once you start looking.

– When your child asked about someone who has a different cultural tradition, it is an opportunity to talk about what it might be like to be a person who wonders whether others say or think negative things about him or her.

You might help your child make this imaginative leap by asking her how it might feel if she didn’t know whether some of the people that she is around think mean things about her. Be sensitive to the perspectives and feelings of those who are not in the majority, or dominant culture as it is sometimes called. The current political process gave several opportunities.

Your child is old enough to start to think about questions such as the one that Colin Powell raised: “So what if a presidential candidate is a Muslim? What is wrong with that?” Help your child see that a Muslim child watching TV might conclude that a presidential candidate shouldn’t be Muslim, and how that might feel.

Or, what would it be like if you were a Jewish child and you saw the way candidates proclaimed their faith in Jesus as if that were a requirement for office. Would you believe that it was just as good to be Jewish and not believe that Jesus was the messiah?

Note that we do not emphasize explanations about equality. Of course, these have their place. However, explanations that skin color, religion and other differences do not affect who we are as people — our rights and our goodness — these are only the first steps toward tolerance, and the more straightforward ones at that.

True tolerance requires emotional connection and empathy, and these often require courageous leaps of imagination. Lead and they will follow.

The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood in Cary is a private, nonprofit agency that promotes the healthy emotional well-being of children and their families. The question of the month may be a composite or illustration of questions families have asked Lucy Daniels staff. To submit a question, e-mail editorial@carolinaparent.com with Ask Lucy Daniels in the subject line.

For more information on a similar topic, search articles for: “Raising Considerate Children,” July 2005

Categories: Early Education, Education, Health and Development, School Kids, SK Development