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We teach our son to be empathetic. Are we just setting him up for heartbreak?

6 min

In the early winter, my 10-year-old son came home sad and distraught. His friends at school were taking his hat during recess and playing Keep Away with it because it had the emblem of an National Football League team on it that wasn’t the hometown favorite. “I kept telling them to stop and that it hurt my feelings,” he told me. But they kept doing it, he said. “Why should I be kind and respectful of other people’s feelings when no one else is doing it?”

I didn’t have a ready answer. And it set me on the quest to figure out if it’s even worth it to work to raise an empathetic child in an era where empathy seems to be decreasing.

My wife and I have raised our son to believe that sensitivity, kindness and empathy are traits to openly practice. He’s the kind of child who often consoles friends who are struggling emotionally, yet he often comes home crestfallen because classmates, even friends, have treated his sensitivity as a moving target.

While we clearly value empathy, we also don’t want to set him up for more heartbreak. Which leaves us wondering: Should we keep teaching a social skill that seems to be devalued?

Psychologists, therapists, social scientists and researchers have long lauded empathy, or the belief that we can and should try to identify and understand other people’s emotional state and feelings. “We’ve known for decades that it promotes pro-social behavior, which makes for stronger social networks and, in turn, flourishing communities,” said Dacher Keltner, the faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley, whose research focuses on the long-term adaptivity of emotion. “It’s the glue for any healthy, well-oiled society.”

Experts insist that empathy is hardwired in humans, and that, even if we’re taught to suppress or repress it, empathy can be learned.

For all of its seeming perks, empathy can be a hard sell. It’s not completely surprising to learn that political divisions determine our empathic reactions to people with opposing views. When people outside of our worldview-silo suffer, many of us experience either “rare or fragile” feelings of empathy for them or “dampen[ed] empathic responses” that dehumanize them. And in an era when many adults were already mentally and emotionally exhausted before the pandemic, many people choose not to learn or extend empathy because they perceive it as requiring too much mental effort, according to a study by the American Psychological Association. This apathy applies to larger, social movements, but it’s perhaps even more common regarding one-on-one empathy.

There’s a generational fissure, as well. In a well-documented longitudinal study of nearly 14,000 college students, Sara Konrath, director of the Interdisciplinary Program on Empathy and Altruism Research at Indiana University, found that empathy has declined approximately 40 percent among this age range since the 1990s.

I’ve experienced this firsthand as a full-time college lecturer. Recently, a student in the Leading Lives That Matter course I teach echoed a familiar student irritation when I talked about the need for greater empathy in a culture where screen-time is diminishing our capacity and tolerance for interacting face-to-face beyond our immediate social tribes. “Sorry, but it’s arrogant to think that we can possibly know what someone else feels or thinks when we don’t know their life experiences,” she fumed.

As we learn in this course, this limiting perspective actually closes the aperture to empathy — it masks a deeper fear of extending ourselves to strangers and anyone who simply has a different worldview. (I experience the same pushback when I have assigned an informal experiment and follow-up written reflection to students — to have lunch with a stranger at school.) And it underscores a different message well-meaning parents instill in children early on, as one Harvard study found: Individual academic and professional achievement and happiness trump concern for others.

W. Keith Campbell, a professor in the Behavioral and Brain Sciences Program at the University of Georgia, has found a correlation between rising rates of narcissism and lowering rates of empathy. “Whenever there are people putting this kind of social status and competition above everything else, it creates a culture with lower cohesion and trust,” he told me.

But empathy should be taught for many reasons, says educational psychologist Michele Borba. The author of the book “Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine” told me that “empathy makes kids more resilient because there is no more powerful need for humans than to belong and connect — the pandemic has shown this in stark terms.” She’s right. Research shows that increased feelings of empathy decrease levels of loneliness and emotional isolation, the kind of negative emotions that so many adolescents have always felt, far more so during the pandemic. Resilience is further developed because empathy gives teens perspective with their problems and helps them feel less stressed in navigating social stressors.

Another reason parents should value empathy in their children: It’s part of a larger social-emotional tool kit that more schools and workplaces are increasingly requiring, and it helps adolescents better regulate their own emotions and improve listening skills (not to mention help teens remain open to problem solving with their parents).

Perhaps the biggest perk for younger children is that children who are taught empathy are generally better able to regulate big feelings, show less aggression and feel less compulsion to bully.

It’s important for parents to remember that empathy waxes and wanes in children of all ages. Maurice Elias, a psychology professor at Rutgers University, told me that young children can feel empathy for a crying classmate but won’t approach that child out of fear. Teens can feel empathy for another person, even a friend, yet won’t show it in public, because they’re more worried about how others will perceive them. “The progression of empathy isn’t a linear thing in children,” said Elias, the director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab. “Just keep teaching it, and eventually you’ll observe a consistency to empathetic behavior.”

Recently, our son came home and said that he and one of his friends who had taken his hat had repaired their riff. How? I asked. “I told him that if he was my friend, then he would listen when I told him that something he did hurt my feelings,” our son said.

This boy was okay with that? I asked. “Yup, he apologized and gave me a Twinkie with jelly filling,” he said.

Maybe that, right there, was the answer to my question.

Andrew Reiner teaches at Towson University and is the author of “Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Emotional Resiliency.

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