September 26, 2019

Do you have to sacrifice empathy for success?

The local and national news frequently includes stories involving people’s cruelty to one another, which may leave families wondering what that means for their children. Many parents express concern with raising children to care about others, perhaps as an antidote to the perceived anger and indifference of the world outside our home. 

However, adults may unwittingly give mixed messages to children about competing priorities. A 2014 study by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education surveyed 10,000 middle and high school students about what was more important to them: achieving at a high level, happiness, or caring for others. About 80 percent of the students surveyed reported that they were more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others. They also claimed that their parents and teachers prioritized success as well. 

Ironically, caring behavior in children usually leads to the kind of strong relationships that are key to both personal happiness and success. So what’s a parent to do? If you value empathy, civility, and compassion, here are some ways to help instill those qualities in your child.

Make sure your children know what’s important to you. This may sound obvious, but we need to communicate our values and tie them to actions. Use phrases that specifically show what behavior you think is both desirable or off limits: “In our family we don’t call each other names because that’s hurtful and disrespectful.” Children also need to hear when they have a positive impact on others: “Taking out the trash for Grandma was very helpful of you.”

Lead by example both inside and outside the family. Role modeling is always something we’re doing, even when we are not aware that our children are watching. Think about how you show family members you care about them daily, and try to exhibit the kindness you want to develop in your child. 

Consider how you honor commitments you make to others and talk with children about how they should do the same, even when it is tempting to back out of something if a more desirable option comes along. The authors of the Harvard study suggest parents gradually expand their child’s “circle of concern,” since it’s relatively easy to have empathy for those you love and know well, but it’s important to strive for treating all people with consideration and respect. 

Think about your daily encounters with the grocery store clerk, the waiter, the grouchy neighbor: do you act like the person you want your child to grow up to be? We’ll never get it right all the time but acknowledging when we fall short can be a powerful lesson, too.

Help children develop empathy and coping skills. It’s developmentally normal for young children to have difficulty taking another person’s point of view, especially when upset or angry. Asking questions when a child is calm is one way to encourage thinking beyond his or her own feelings and experiences: “How did your friend’s face look when her classmate made that mean comment? What do you think that was like for her?” Learning to deal with challenging feelings is a major task of childhood with lifelong repercussions. 

Does your child have some constructive ways of dealing with anger, jealousy, and frustration? If not, what skills do they need to learn? Talk about and accept feelings, take deep breaths, change negative self-talk, take a break from a situation--these are all simple but effective practices that can be learned with practice and encouragement.

Find specific ways for children (and families) to make a difference. Chores are one way that children show they care about their family, and it’s also a way to teach teamwork by talking about chores as tasks that all family members share. Find an elderly neighbor who might need help with an errand or yard work. Encourage your child to donate some of their allowance to charity or collect needed items for a service organization. These ways of contributing help children grow into caring and involved adults.


Lisa Phillips, M.S.W., G.S.W., is a parent educator at The Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital, and is a contributor to the award-winning “Parenting Corner” column. She can be reached at 504.896.9591; chnola.org/parentingcenter.

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