Could Teaching Empathy Start With Bugs?

Photo credit: Alexas_Photos on Pixabay

I used to think it was a little much. My husband was firm with the kids when urging them not to hurt or kill the ants, spiders, ladybugs, or any other random bug they were toying with outside. Over time, I grew to love how gently they would handle the ants that were building their little sandy huts on our patio in the backyard. They would pick them up with great care, and talk about how cute each one was, while it scurried in between each finger across their little hands. This little teaching about being respectful to bugs, seems to have stretched across all living creatures for the kids and it seems to have stuck. Our sons treat our cat with great care, express concern when someone gets injured or sick, and have randomly shown empathy for birds’ “feelings” as of late. Maybe this “be nice to the bugs” business has transformed into more than we could have imagined in the way of teaching life lessons.

Most of us would agree that if more people in the the world possessed empathy, the better place the world would be. Empathy is a fascinating emotion when you dissect it. I actually looked into the science of it and according to Helen Riess,MD, in The Journal of Patient Experience in the “The Science of Empathy” chapter, “ A cardinal feature of empathy is that it usually helps connect people to others. Because of the evolutionary development of this brain-based capacity, affective empathy, or emotional sharing, most easily occurs among members of the same “tribe”. Individuals tend to have the most empathy for others who look or act like them, for others who have suffered in a similar way, or for those who share a common goal. We see these biases play out repeatedly in communities, schools, sports teams, and religious communities. The truth of the matter is that empathy is not always an equal opportunity benefactor. People are evolutionarily wired to recognize and respond to differences and socially or culturally based perceptions can trigger subconscious fears that threaten emotional homeostasis.”

Since this current generation of parents, myself included, seems to be quite self aware, over scrutinized, and ultra helicoptery, would it be outrageous to say maybe teaching our children empathy should be right up there with teaching them not to hit, lie, cheat, and steal? Think about it for a second.

Some people struggle with how to correct, discipline, or engage with their child when their child is behaving in an unpleasant or disapproving way toward another child. In each scenario I run through, if you weave in empathy when discussing with your child why, how, or what they are doing is wrong, it almost seems like the outcome would be a win/win everytime. Why? Because they are being given an example right after the act and asked to think about themselves if the scenario were reversed. If it’s fresh after the incident, it’s likely to be easier for them to remember versus waiting until you’re back home to have the discussion. Sure, it will take them a minute to calm down from their tantrum, so if you’re talking to them while their fuming, it’s likely just words in the air. But if you wait a minute and then have a short conversation with them about the ol’ “Golden Rule”, each time they repeat the offense, maybe it will start to click.

Let’s start with the bug example. When my kids play with ants, they are careful not to hurt or kill them because they’ve been taught to think about them as part of a family. Don’t crush little Johnny-the-ant because he could be the dad of that other ant right there. Or don’t step on that red one climbing on the stoop, because she could be the sister to that ant right there, and he would be so sad if his sister died. When our kids were taught to think of them as creatures who were loved within their own little family unit, they dared not kill them or hurt them.

While pulling into our driveway the other day, I expressed disappointment that only the plain brown finches were eating all my birdseed in the feeder. To which my son disdainfully replied, “That’s judgemental. You’re judging a bird by it’s cover. Just because you don’t think it’s pretty enough with the bright colors and stuff, doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to eat our seeds!” Yikes. My son showed empathy and compassion for…a bird. It was as though he thought I could hurt the bird’s feelings by saying it was just a boring old plain brown finch. Was I physically hurting the bird- of course not- but this was him sticking up for the bird’s “feelings”… so how could I argue with that?

Perhaps, when we start teaching them to respect animals (even bugs) it can carry over into how they react toward humans. Already, it seems almost natural for kids to want to stick up for one another when they see another in peril. For example, if kids see another kid haul off and slap or punch someone, the kids observing often take action and/or do something about it. They will come and tell a parent about the incident they’ve observed, or they will come to the child’s aid and ask if he/she is OK. They will also likely tell the other kid to cut the crap and in so many words say to the offender — Yo! You shouldn’t do that to my friend! So the compassion is there, I think us parents have to nurture it to make sure it sticks and doesn’t go away.

As the parent who is observing a spat between your own child and another, if you begin see frustration in your child hitting a tipping point, and it’s borderline about to get physical, the natural reaction is to disrupt the interaction or break it up. But I don’t think it can stop there. Separating the kids or breaking it up isn’t teaching them the lesson. The words are what hold the power behind the action. This is how they actually learn. It won’t ever click for them if there is no follow up with a talk about why what they’ve done is wrong and why they shouldn’t hit others.

Think about it, how will the child learn or understand not to do it again if they’re not taught how their reaction was wrong and the why behind it? I’m no expert, but I’ve had some luck with this so I was thinking I should share. A few simple questions change everything about the altercation. “How would you feel if (insert child’s name here) punched/pushed/slapped/used a golf club on you?” “How do you think that made him/her feel?” There’s that golden rule again about treating others how we want to be treated. Drum that saying into their heads again and again at each opportunity.I believe the more the idea of empathy makes sense to them, the more often they will actually apply it.

As I’m typing this, I’m thinking of an ongoing scenario in my household where my older son is constantly annoying my younger one. He’s a very touchy feely kid and it really drives my younger one batty. I’m going to take my own advice and try something out tomorrow when they’re arguing about personal space. I’m going to show my older son what he is doing so he can actually see for himself how annoying it is for someone else to be on the receiving end. He’s the one who scolded me about the bird, so I know he can be compassionate if I go about this lesson the right way. I’ll have to circle back on how this goes.

Sometimes separating kids and talking to them doesn’t always do the trick and a consequence is necessary. I’m definitely on board with that and we all know that zero discipline is a recipe for disaster. The point I’m trying to make is the more empathy your kid has, the less apt they are to hit,bully, hurt feelings on purpose, etc. I’m thinking they should have a class in kindergartens across the nation simply called Empathy and Compassion 101. I’d honestly be so curious to see how it influences children!

There are adults we know that could use a lesson in this. I’m sure all of us can think of an example or two where we were involved in an exchange with someone who seemed numb, cold, or aloof while we were in the midst of explaining or experiencing something very difficult or emotional. Perhaps the lack of empathy is situational and other times it’s a person who just does not have the capability to empathize. When you stop and think about that, it’s quite sad, isn’t it? That’s why it’s got to start with our kids-and it’s really important. Think about some of the bad things in society that just might fall away if more people were being raised to be more compassionate.

We have only a few years -maybe 10 or so- to instill and teach core values to our children before it’s too late. In the article What Empathy Is and Why It’s Important it explains, “How we treat others, and how we feel about others, is often a reflection of the beliefs and values that were instilled at a very young age.”

And that, my fellow parents, is why teaching our kids to be nice to bugs might not be the worst thing.