The civil war in Syria is now in its fourth year and refugees’ migration through Europe has been widely reported and photographed. So why, Dumitrescu asked, did this photo have such impact?
It’s human nature for us to feel empathy for those who remind us of ourselves and those close to us, and Aylan struck this chord. What’s more challenging, however, is finding empathy for those who may be less relatable to us: the others who have tried and failed to find safety for their families; the thousands blocked in their journey by razor-wire fences.
Consciously working to expand the universe of people for whom we have empathy—our “circle of concern”—is at the heart of our ability to see and pursue justice. Indeed, it’s at the center of our humanity. Although we tend to refer to empathy in terms of quantity, the bigger issue is who we have empathy for. As parents, it’s critical to challenge ourselves to widen our circle of concern and encourage our children to do the same.
Empathy isn’t always automatic. It is a practice, and one that we need to develop and strengthen throughout our lives. It is also much more than perspective-taking or “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” After all, con men and torturers can take others’ perspectives, but we wouldn’t argue that they are empathetic. True empathy is not just about understanding another’s beliefs or experiences, but about valuing other people.
Children learn empathy in a variety of ways, but one key way is by watching what we as their parents choose to pay attention to and care about.
Whether we intend it, our kids’ empathetic response to this crisis and other ethical situations will be guided by our own reactions. They’ll notice if we only express concern for some groups—such as children who remind us of them—but not others. And they’ll notice if we don’t talk about it at all.
The good news is that our kids will also take note if we do pay attention. Our research suggests that even though most parents say that raising caring children is a top priority, children often aren’t hearing that message in our day-to-day conversations with them. We need to actively express caring toward others—especially those whose experiences are very different from our own—and take actions that express our care. Children will notice if we “walk the talk,” and they will be far more likely to respect us and to want to emulate our values.
So how do we talk to kids about this crisis?
1. Set aside time for a thoughtful conversation to show our kids that it’s an important issue worthy of family attention. Ask kids what they know about what has happened and what they’ve seen or read. Having everyone read the same age-appropriate news story could help lay the foundation for a conversation (many major news outlets have news sites for kids, including The Washington Post’s KidsPost).
2. Take turns “zooming in” to talk about each family member’s questions and concerns and really listen to each other’s answers. Then “zoom out” to consider the bigger picture and take other perspectives into account: How do you think it feels to be forced to leave your home? What would it feel like not to have anywhere to go? Why do you think some people want migrants to resettle in their countries and some don’t? Encourage your older children especially to think about the issue from the perspective of those who feel their livelihoods might be threatened by migrants’ resettlement in their country. How might these people also be heard and supported?
3. Talk about how you as a family can take action and put your ideas into practice. Will you continue reading news stories and sharing information at family dinners? Try to motivate friends and classmates to learn more? Get involved with an organization doing humanitarian or relief work? Decide what feels right for you as a family and sketch out a game plan.
With thousands of refugees pouring into Europe every day, it is clear that this crisis will not end soon. Engaging our kids in meaningful conversations and actions will help increase their understanding and their ability to empathize with those affected. And in the end, it will make them—and us—better people and citizens in our complex, interconnected world.
Richard Weissbourd is a child and family psychologist at Harvard’s School of Education, director of the school’s Making Caring Common project, and author of the book The Parents We Mean to Be. He’s also a dad.
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