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Cultivating empathy in my children, from a neuroscience perspective


It was a typically harried school morning, with the kids packed three across the back seat by 7:30 a.m. But it was no normal school morning. Katherine woke up to find her beloved pet rabbit dead in its cage. I suppose it seemed as if her whole 9-year-old world should have stopped then, but instead we had to pack all our lunches and pile our book bags into the car in 10 minutes flat.

As I helped Katherine buckle into her seat, I found an old yellow stress ball on the floor and handed it to her. “If you feel sad, squeeze this ball, and it might make you feel a little better,” I told her.

Sure enough, a few minutes into our journey, she pulled out the yellow ball and squeezed it with both hands as hard as she could, eyes shut tight.

Next to Katherine sat her younger sister, Jessica. Jessica’s bunny was still very much alive and healthy.

Jessica spied the crushed yellow ball and screamed, “That’s my ball! Stop squeezing it!”

It was then that I noticed the ball had a smiley face on it. I tried to explain: “Honey, she’s really sad right now, and I gave her that ball to help. It won’t hurt it to be squeezed. That’s what it’s meant for.”

“No!” Jessica shrieked. “It’s alive! She’s hurting it!” I wanted to force Jessica to share the ball, but I stopped myself. Their conflict filled the car, and we just drove on, stuck, until Jessica reached over and snatched her ball back.

I tried again, “Jessica, you know Katherine’s going through a really hard thing right now, and anything you can do to make a difference to her is a good thing.” And then I left it there, with Jessica clutching the ball and Katherine weeping, face turned to the window.

If you allow for it, there can be a space for children to weigh the issues and balance themselves right after conflict. It’s a space where kids can sort out feelings and thoughts in the aftermath of screaming. In our fast-paced lives, we normally just zoom straight through it. And yet, it’s in this small space — the space that feels really bad — where kindness and compassion can happen. Jessica’s response to her sister had to be Jessica’s decision; if it were forced, there would be no genuine kindness in it.

It is situations like these that make us who we are. And if we fail to let our children have these moments, they will grow up without us giving them the opportunity to decide who to be. They’ll miss out on the chance to truly define themselves by those decisions.

Empathy is divided into cognitive, emotional and applied empathy, all of which are valuable. In other words: There’s how we think about emotions, there’s how we feel emotions, and there’s what we do about the emotional content in the world around us. For empathy to truly be useful to the human condition, our kids must have applied empathy, or compassion. Recognizing these different types of empathy is the first step in helping our kids become doers of good things in the world around them.

To understand how to cultivate empathy, as well as the underlying elements of creativity and self-control in our kids, and to teach them how to use these skills purposefully, we need to understand how our parenting is shaping our children’s brains. Synaptic plasticity, or neuroplasticity, is a highly dynamic process in which connections between neurons fade away or strengthen depending on how frequently they’re used. Everything we do as parents strengthens some connections in our children’s brains while leaving other connections undeveloped or underdeveloped.

This strengthening happens by plain old deliberate practice. Empathy is a complicated skill, but it’s easy to teach. To actively work on empathy, we must teach our children what to do with the feelings and thoughts that get dredged up by social conflict. To begin, we can provide a framework to process the social content — parents can name the emotions and help explain other perspectives.

And parents, then we back off. If we want compassionate acts to be deeply rewarding to our kids, then we have to allow them to pick a course of action on their own terms. And if it all goes wrong, we let them feel what that choice feels like. Afterward, we can provide a framework to process it and help our kids generate lots of alternative solutions. We talk them through the present, but instead of focusing on what went wrong this time, we help them see a clear path to choose differently next time.

Neuroscience shows us that just as practice helps our kids learn relatively simple skills like walking, throwing a curveball, or rapping the lyrics to one of the songs in “Hamilton,” practice can also enable them to learn the more complicated skills of being creative, expressing empathy and maintaining their self-control. (At the same time, we can help our children to not practice the behaviors we would love to see disappear so that the neuronal connections underlying those behaviors weaken.)

Your kids are not always going to make the decisions you want them to make, but sometimes they will. I could barely see Jessica from the driver’s seat as she slid the ball over and pressed it back into her sister’s palm. This time, giving Jessica space for reflection worked. I gave Jessica a thumbs-up in the rear view mirror. She was smiling.

Neuroscience tells us that neuronal pathways that are used frequently while we’re young are more likely to be used in the future. It’s our job as parents to help this connective process along, making sure that certain behaviors in our kids become second nature. They may not have been born with these characteristics, but you’d never know it when you’re talking to them as adults. It will become their default way of being — the platform from which they approach the world. And developing these pathways is what parenting is all about.

Erin Clabough is a mother of four who teaches biology and neuroscience at Hampden-Sydney College. She conducts research in developmental brain function and other areas, and is the author of the forthcoming book, “Second Nature: How Parents Can Use Neuroscience to Help Kids Develop Empathy, Creativity, and Self-Control.”

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