Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

4 Teves 5762 - December 19, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Home and Family
Empathy in Children
by A. Ross, M.A.

During the past few weeks, we have been made aware of Maran HaRav Shach's great love of humanity, his selflessness and his loving approach to people of all ages and all walks of life. Hundreds of people think that they and their own particular family were closer to Rav Shach zt'l than many others. Stories and anecdotes abound about his youth and early childhood as well. When did he acquire this empathy for all his fellow Jews, and how can we help our children to attain this attribute, even if not to the amazing level that he had it, at least to a lesser degree?

Every person has some feeling for others in his genetic code, but without nurture and education, this feeling is not likely to develop, unless the child is one of those rare people who are kind to others instinctively as soon as they can speak. As with most traits, some children are born with more potential to acquire the ability to empathize than others. It also depends on the example they see at home. If they see their mother doing things for them all day with pleasure and with a smile, that is the way they will grow up, too. Just listen to your children talking to their dolls or to their small friends and playing make-believe, and you will hear yourself. Furthermore, if children see their parents helping others [especially if the family runs some kind of gemach, no matter how small -- or avails itself of some local gemach, not necessarily a free- loan!], that, too, will make an impression to them. How do parents treat the people who come to the door to solicit funds? This has nothing to do with the amount they give; it is the way it is given. Besides parents' example, children can be motivated by outsiders, teachers or anyone whom they admire.

The definition of `empathy' is the power of entering into another's personality and imaginatively experiencing his feelings. A small child thinks only of himself, and assumes that everyone else is also only thinking of him. The maxim "The world was created just for me" is kept well by a toddler. He is a totally selfish creation. Yet, on the other hand, a baby might watch another baby crying and after a few minutes, begin to cry in unison. Is he empathizing with the other baby? Researchers claim that he is identifying with this other `creature' in distress and feeling his pain.

When the child is perhaps three or four years old, one can see the first signs of a real urge to help others. A little girl might see another child crying in her kindergarten class. There is no teacher around. She will bring her one toy after another, in an effort to comfort the child. She tried to help the other child in the way she felt was intuitively best, but it doesn't seem to be working. Now she stands there, at a loss. The other child seeing this, will tentatively pick up a teddy or doll and begin to stroke it, whilst her crying will gradually ease off.

At this age, research has divided children into three groups. The first group to which the child in the above example belongs, will empathize and try to help the child who seems to be in trouble. The second group will watch the troubled child but will not attempt to help in any way. The third group of children, interestingly, will either move away from the scene, or even hit the unfortunate child to stop him from crying. Are they copying this sort of reaction from something they have seen?

By the age of six, a child's cognitive ability is beginning to develop. He will know when to offer help and will often know instinctively when a friend prefers to be left alone. In fact, it is one of the telltale signs of a mildly autistic child if he will stand by immobile while someone with both hands full is trying to open a door. Normally, most children over the age of six or seven will run to open the door without being asked. This is social awareness without the need for speech.

Although most children enjoy helping around the house, Mother does not always appreciate the `help'. It is worth letting children help (and always thanking them for it) even if the help is not up to our standards, or even if it is no help at all. If your young child climbs onto a chair to wash the (unbreakable) dishes, let him. There will be a mess on the floor, and you will probably have to do them again, but he will get a great feeling of satisfaction [of getting the job done and of being helpful]. The first few times a child sweeps the floor, she may not be at all successful. Thank her all the same [perhaps provide her with a smaller broom] and DON'T sweep again till she is not around. When she knows how to sweep the floor and it is actually her `job' to do it every evening, don't forget to thank her for her help. The child will grow up appreciating others and not taking them for granted. Why is it that so many girls enjoy helping others outside the house, as chessed projects, and not even getting paid for it? It is because they are appreciated. They are appreciated at home, too, but mothers often forget to express it. Some mothers feel that their daughters will have homes of their own soon enough, and that it is unfair to expect them to help. This is a false premise. Daughters should learn to see that mothers are also human beings and that helping at home is just as important as school work.

Tell, or read your children stories about great men and women, past and present, who lived their whole lives in the service of others and of the incredible sacrifices they made in order to help others. Most of us can never hope to measure up to these standards, but hearing and reading about them makes even adults who are set in their ways want to emulate them. Sensitive idealistic children will be fired by an even stronger ambition to be like them. [These are the future candidates for klall work! Nurture them!]

As children are growing up, they often do not have the sensitivity to assess a given situation. The four-year-old has spilt a bottle of milk; the toddler has just forgotten to go to the toilet and the results are on the floor besides the spilt milk. Baby is screaming for a bottle while the soup boils over. Just then your seven-year-old asks, "Mommy, can you teach me how to tie shoe laces?" He is just not aware of what is going on. Screaming at him will not help. Take a deep breath and ask him if he could help you for a few minutes and later on tonight, or maybe tomorrow, you will have time to show him how to tie his laces. Examples like this one occur in every household frequently. Often, a child as old as eleven or twelve will make an unsuitable request at an inappropirate time, and Mother believes s/he ought to know better. Deep down, he certainly knows, but at that particular moment, he is only thinking of himself. It takes a lifetime to perfect middos.

Parents are most likely to get irritated by personality traits in their children which they recognize to be similar to their own. They have tried to improve their middos through the years and now see them in a child in their `unimproved' state. Have patience, remember that example is the best teacher and, hopefully, our children will grow up to be caring people spending their lives doing chessed.


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