Empathic individuals are the foundation of a strong community; empathy enables people, however different from one another, to live well together. Empathy brings us slowly but surely to the startling revelation that other people are just as real and important as we are. When you can put yourself into another person’s place and feel what he feels, you grow internal motivation to treat him with respect and kindness. Lauren hears her friend Reyna’s nervous chatter, and offers a steadying hand; she is listening. And when Justice stops running to help Kai with a cape, he is empathizing with Kai’s desire to join the fun; Kai’s need to play is just as real to Justice as his own need to play.
We help children develop empathy through many, many conversations about feelings — conversations in which children share feelings with adults who listen to them with genuine empathy, and conversations when adults help children listen to each other’s feelings. Abby is sobbing, and her teacher Aimee is listening. In this moment, Abby is learning about empathy in the most powerful way we know how to teach it. She is having the experience — as she will over and over at Children First — of being heard, of having her heartbreak and longings honored by a caring adult with the emotional resources and maturity to allow her to be fully herself in this moment.
Children also exercise empathy when they hear books read aloud and discuss the motivations of the characters; when they act out stories their friends have told; and most of all, in pretend play, where they dramatize feelings in the roles they choose.