Garret Kaulkus, a young boy who was riding his bike in suburban Washington, recently came across a badly injured and abused dog. He abandoned his bike and carried the almost 80-pound mortally wounded animal more than half a mile to his house, where he and his parents rushed it to a local veterinarian’s office. Garret refused to leave the animal’s side while the vets unsuccessfully tried to save the dog.
While the staff at the vet’s office was filled with anger and rage toward the perpetrator of the abuse, they noted that Garret’s eyes were only filled with compassion and love as he stroked the dog during its final moments. As the staff noted, “Garret was our teacher today.”
Just what exactly did Garret teach the veterinary staff?
The actions of Garret that day demonstrate one of the core and essential principles of human nature: empathy. What leads a person such as Garret to possess such a strong sense of empathy, and what leads to others, such as the abuser of this dog, to not possess empathy?
The answer can usually be found in childhood, when we either form or don’t form the ability to relate to other’s suffering, and to respond accordingly.
Children are primed for empathy in the first two years of life, largely based on strong attachment relationships. Neuroscientists have identified a 10-section “empathy circuit” in the brain, which, if damaged, can curtail our ability to understand what other people are feeling.
Strong attachment bonds in early childhood, such as parental affection and the meeting of a child’s basic needs, greatly increase the young child’s ability to see outside of themselves and feel for others.
Why is empathy such an important quality to foster in our children? We can examine bullying for clarity on the power of empathy, or lack thereof, in children.
In a study of more than 700 American children, Gianluca Gini and his colleagues found that bullies, despite being quite competent at reasoning about beliefs, outcomes and moral permissibility of different actions, were “woefully deficient” in compassion compared to victims and children who defend victims. Studies suggest that some bullies are more likely than other kids to develop Antisocial Personality Disorder, a psychiatric condition characterized by a disregard for the rights and feelings of others.
As Dr. Mehmet Oz states, “The opposite of anger is not calmness; it is empathy.”
While many school programs focus on increasing the social skills, self-confidence or anger management skills of bullies, they may be missing the true point: raising kind and non-violent children begins with life lessons on empathy. It is important to note that empathy is not a talent that one has or doesn’t have; it is a skill that is fostered, or isn’t.
This fact is essential to understanding the role of adults in helping to foster empathy in our young people.
Parents, especially in early years, have the most influence over their children’s psychological and moral development. It is important for parents to use “teachable moments” to instill habits of empathy and compassion. While we certainly are flooded with a fair amount of sad, violent and scary news each day, we can also grasp onto stories of true caring and compassion, such as the story of Garret and the dog, and share these with our children. Children should notice the kind acts of others, so that they have a framework for understanding the behaviors of compassionate human beings, as well as experiencing feelings of sadness and grief for others who are suffering.
Other ways that parents can encourage empathy in their children include modeling empathy in real-life situations, helping kids discover commonalities and differences with others, exploring characters from books or television (what do they think, feel and believe?), teaching self-control and helping children cope with negative feelings and bounce back from distress.
For parents looking for a visual tool to teach their children about empathy, visit YouTube for a great video entitled “The Power of Empathy.” This 2-minute, 50-second video can be a great conversation tool for families.
We can look no further than the story of Garret Kaulkus to affirm that parents who create a culture of empathy within their family contribute to fostering a culture of empathy in our schools, neighborhoods, communities and society.
Until next time, be well.
Diane Bigler is a licensed clinical social worker who lives in Platte City with her family. She may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.