Humans are social beings by nature. This means that their development is essentially determined by the environment in which they live and by the people they interface with in the course of their lives.
The basic needs of newborn babies are not restricted to their physiological requirements; in order to develop, children need relationships with other human beings, they need to feel their warmth, affection, voice and physical contact: these aspects are all essential for health and wellbeing in a child's development.
The people we live with are invaluable: they nourish our soul, stimulate our growth and support our development. Today’s children are tomorrow’s adults, and this is something we should always bear in mind because we can make a difference to what they will become, through our example and our words, and by being sensitive and attentive towards the person we are educating.
If we could choose which qualities to convey to our children, empathy would certainly be among those at the top of our wish list. Being empathetic means feeling the other person’ emotions, seeing things through their eyes and understanding what they are going through; clearly this is something that can improve everyone’s life, but especially the relationships we build every day. Empathy is not an innate ability; it is acquired through practice which over time creates connections inside the brain that enable it to focus on others and their feelings.
Before exploring how to foster children’s empathetic thinking, it is crucial to remind ourselves of the way the brain is structured and how it works because the brain is responsible for the emotional competencies of individuals, adults and children alike. Let’s imagine a two-storey house: the ground floor represents the lower part of the brain, the one responsible for the primitive components that control the body’s physiological functions (breathing, blinking, and so on), as well as impulsive and intense emotional reactions; the top floor, on the other hand, corresponds to the cerebral cortex and its related components. This is where the more complex mental processes occur, like thinking, imagination, planning and organisation.
It is important to be aware that, although each part of the brain has its own specific function, integration between the different parts is key for ensuring balance and wellbeing: it would be wrong to assume that rational thinking in the top part of the brain is never influenced by feelings, instincts and emotional impulses in the lower part. For good overall functioning of the brain, integration between its various regions is essential; this enables us to better control any strong reactions (when emotional reactions are rationally “contained” by the top part of the brain) and at the same time to make conscious choices but also enriched by our individual emotional input.
According to Maria Montessori, the brain stops developing around the age of 21, and she was not far wrong!
Today’s neuroscience research has in fact shown that the cerebral cortex, unlike other parts of the brain, develops throughout childhood and adolescence and reaches the end of its development at around 21 years. This means that the acquisition of competencies in the “top floor” is determined by both the brain’s physical development and each individual’s personal experiences. In terms of brain anatomy, there is a region of the brain in which neurons play a key role in controlling empathy: the right supramarginal gyrus.
This area works like a sort of “emotional muscle”: at birth it is completely atrophied and without competencies, but with development and training it will acquire new abilities that constitute the first steps towards a deeper understanding of the people around us. The fact that children in the 0-6 age group are so self-centred and in most of their relationships are primarily focused on totally egocentric needs and expressions is not merely the result of their individual character but depends far more on the development of their brain anatomy. This is certainly an important fact that renews the adult’s educational role, fostering a more receptive and more understanding approach.
Feeling comfortable inside a group, whether large or small, requires not only relational skills but also personal skills. The brain’s ability to control emotions and instincts is key for building a moral sense, which in turn allows men, women and children to willingly share their time and spaces.
What we can do to train children in empathy is certainly to talk about this ability, without assuming that this concept is difficult to understand. Empathy lies in deeds rather than words, and this is precisely why we as adults can lead by example: we can create a pretext for empathy training at different times over the course of the day, including during very relaxed moments. It can be done when they come home from school, in the playground or at the supermarket: in order to nurture children’s emotional development, what we should suggest and strive to achieve is a shift of perspective, helping them to see the situation from a different point of view. Instead of condemning or judging, we should focus our mind on asking kind questions that can lead to a totally different experience.
As a practical example, when we are faced with children having an emotional outburst, instead of talking about and commenting on their more or less challenging reactions with sentences such as “that child always behaves like that”, or “whenever he has to do something he doesn’t like, he always cries”, we should suggest questions that allow us to properly analyse the situation, based on what we are able to observe. Judgements should never be about the individual but about their actions or behaviours, which can always be changed and improved. Words carry weight, and there is no doubt that the more care we take in expressing them the better the resulting long-term consequences will be.
So, we could say, for example:
“I see that Alex is screaming very loudly, there must be something wrong. I wonder
why he’s reacting like that.”
“I see that Lucy has torn your drawing, you’re right to be upset, I can really understand that. Why don’t you tell her in your own words what you are feeling inside!”
These responses illustrate two approaches to empathy training. In the first example, the adult provides an opportunity to sharpen the child’s observation, as if to turn on a kind of “radar” for problem situations that require keener emotional perception. Alex is screaming, but before commenting or judging, the adult inquires whether something might have gone wrong, thereby fostering a perspective that shows awareness and attentiveness to someone who needs help at a particular point in time. In each situation adult educators are faced with a clear choice: they can be judgemental and lose their temper, or they can make an effort to understand what is happening and try to find a solution.
In the second example, the educator encourages the child to use a vocabulary that best expresses what he/she is feeling. Blaming the other person and reacting impulsively are actions that often don’t lead the individuals concerned to seek a solution. When faced with a situation that might result in the children getting upset or fighting, teaching them to speak for themselves and to focus on talking about their feelings is a communication strategy that is both non-judgemental and open to dialogue.
Moreover, the child concerned offers the other child the opportunity to think about the consequences of his/her actions. So, in actual fact, practising empathy not only lays the foundations for enjoying richer and more meaningful relationships, but also creates a virtuous circle that has a positive influence on everyone we deal with in our lives.
Being empathetic means seeing things through your heart before than through your eyes, it means connecting with people and attributing importance to their feelings as well as their expressions. Understanding others makes the world a better place, and the adults of tomorrow certainly need to understand and use their emotional potential in order to be the best version of themselves. We have great responsibilities, but without them we wouldn’t be able to grow and improve ourselves every day.