Teaching empathy and gratitude?

Today, I knew what I wanted to write about. What I wasn’t prepared for, was how difficult it has been for me to start. My personal thought is that the two are very closely related. In my case, I’m pretty sure that I understood empathy before gratitude. I was raised by hard working parents. Growing up, I can only remember a single vacation longer than a weekend. It just wasn’t in the cards, I suspect. Dad had a good job, but would find himself laid off by the factory, and find himself in a position where he had to take what jobs he could to provide for his mealy-mouth kids. For her part, Mom pinched the pennies as tightly as she could. To this day, I’m not much of a fan of turkey. This is because Mom would make the biggest bird she could find for Thanksgiving. I swear to you, the four of us would eat that bird until Christmas. Any idea what we had for Christmas dinner? I’ll give you a hint. It fed us until damn near February.

As a result, I feel for the ever-growing numbers of people who struggle. Who are trying to deal with the last thirty years of inflation with wages that haven’t kept pace. It’s always been easy for me to consider walking in their shoes. That said, it got a lot easier when we moved to Nowhere, OH. I’m pretty certain that a not-insignificant portion of town is “food insecure“, where they don’t know if they’ll have enough to eat today. I’m certain that there were plenty of food insecure people where we were in the first place, but I don’t believe it was as conspicuous. So, when we got here, my gratitude for all that I’ve had, whether I had to work for it or not, became much greater.

Important ideals, in my estimation.

More challenging, is how to pass that on to my girls. At what point do they even become capable of empathy? Until they become capable of empathy, is it even possible to teach them about gratitude? If they can’t consider how someone doesn’t have enough, how would they feel anything but their own disappointment at not getting a bigger ice cream dish, or a root beer float? We work to make sure that they understand that some of their classmates may not have enough. Last Christmas, I took them out to participate in the secret Santa phenomenon, paying off layaways at the local-ish KMart. One for each of the girls. I wanted to demonstrate that doing things for others is benefit enough, even when you don’t get anything more out of it.

What more can be done to help instill these values that, in my estimation, are suffering greatly in our society today? I’d love to hear from you in the comments. As a society, we’ve become so overly individualistic that I’m afraid that we’re going lose the ability to empathize. And if we can no longer empathize, I fear for our future.

2 thoughts on “Teaching empathy and gratitude?

  1. Best suggestion I can think of is to talk to them, as you’re already working on the being a good example facet of the problem. Share observations when you see empathy and when you see the opposite. Ask what they think, how they think whatever makes that person feel. Give them the language to be able to verbalize and conceptualize these concepts.

    For example, when I’d get the occasional “I hate you” from one of ours, I’d rephrase it for the child in question, “I understand, you are Angry with me.” and so it goes….

  2. I think it’s wonderful to provide children with experiences to encourage the development of generosity. We have done two things specifically with our kids. One is providing dinner to the homeless once a month via PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter). It is a church-based organization, and not-for-profit. One night a month my kids and I made a hot dinner for 10 (we were given recipes) and delivered it ourselves to the church basement where the homeless slept. You don’t have to be affiliated with the church, just want to help. In addition, my kids and I would harvest our fruits, veggies and herbs weekly in the summer, and bring extras to the local Township Center’s food pantry. They LOVE getting fresh food- people usually were there taking the food as we brought it in! Regardless of how a parent teaches generosity, I think the best way is through modeling the behavior. Keep up the good work with your daughters! :)

Thoughts?