Addressing Empathy Deficits

“Jamal is icky. He walks with a limp and talks funny.” “Suzanne is so stupid! She looks weird, too.” Such cringe-worthy statements can be upsetting when they come out of our children’s mouths. We want them to be caring people. So how do we help kids feel empathy for people they would rather avoid?

Empathy deficits are common in children and adults. We tend to relate more easily with people like ourselves and be suspicious of those who are different. This can lead to negative biases and hurtful discrimination. But social scientists have found that factual information and imaginative role-playing build empathy and combat harmful stereotypes.

Information is useful because facts help children cognitively understand what is going on with others. Share basic data, such as Jamal limps because he was injured in a car accident. He had a stroke, which has caused weakness on one side of his body. Suzanne has Down syndrome. She was born with an extra chromosome that affects how she looks and acts. Then encourage older children to do more research to further their understanding.

Pair information with imaginative role play. A recent study found that imagining positive interactions with someone who has a disability reduces children’s prejudices. Invite your child to picture playing a board game with Jamal or going on a nature walk with Suzanne. Pick an activity your child enjoys and seems within the abilities of the other person as well.

Also, encourage children to imagine the other person’s perspective. For young children, this means exploring how they would feel and recognizing that another person might feel the same. Act out a scenario in which you call them a name and ask them how they feel. Then reverse the roles, with them calling you a name and you mirroring their emotions. For older kids, suggest that they run likely scenarios in their head related to their own experiences with bias or negative attention.

Throughout your interactions, acknowledge that everyone has their own point of view. Philosopher Heidi Maibom notes that our subjectivity, which is a form of bias, doesn’t have to be negative. However, if we believe that our perspective is ‘just the way things are’ rather than a subjective viewpoint, we will be frustrated when others don’t agree. So we need to remind children that their experiences shape how they see the world and that different experiences lead to different perspectives.

It’s also useful to model intellectual humility with children. Talk about times that you have assumed others shared your perspective and then discovered you were wrong. Be explicit about checking your interactions with others for implicit biases. Wonder aloud about your initial negative reactions to some people and share ways you plan to check your assumptions.



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