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  • Writer's pictureHeather Davis

Cultivating Empathy: Models, Exposure & Hard Conversations

Updated: Mar 2, 2022

Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.” – John F. Kennedy

Societal divisions are on display everywhere, and like a deadly virus I know, seem to be highly contagious and on the rise.

How can we help the next generation begin to bridge the gap?

The answer begins and ends in the development and evolution of a uniquely human superpower: empathy.

Nature-nurture combo

Part of empathy is innate. We are born with the capacity for empathy but it is also a learned behavior that is either developed and encouraged in our childhoods…or not.

Empathetic tendencies, like many of the characteristics that make us who we are, stem from both our genetics and the environment within which we are raised.

What starts as basic mimicry as infants, can develop over time into a more complex empathy.

Empathy develops early

Research shows that most brain development happens during the first year of life.

Developmental psychologist Rebecca Saxe of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), underscores the brain’s impressive early growth by explaining how the brains of a 3-year-old and a 33-year-old are more alike, than those of a 3-year-old and a baby.

With this early brain development also come the signs of basic empathy.

Neuroscience researcher Jean Decety found that 12-month-old babies are able to feel the distress of another and try to comfort. He found that even before 18 months, young children showed voluntary and unrewarded helping behaviors.

Research studies show that by the second year of life, the brain, emotions and behavior are already being harnessed together in the ability to show concern for, and act upon, the pain of others.

A person’s a person, no matter how small.” – Dr. Suess

Early attachments, mimicry & empathy

The foundation of empathy is formed in childhood. As infants, attachments and connections with parents and caretakers set the groundwork for our emotional and social development.

Neuroscientists have developed two theories to explain how empathy begins and grows.

Simulation Theory is the unconscious mirroring of another’s emotions, allowing us to simulate and attempt to feel ourselves, someone else’s pain or joy.

Babies learn to smile and mock the facial expressions of caregivers. Unconscious mimicry is a basic part of human communication.

People of all ages have shown to copy facial and body language, tone of voice and the movements of others when interacting to encourage feelings of kinship and connection. Success depends on the skill of perception and the ability to read non-verbal cues.

Simulation foreshadows empathy. The understanding of what others feel by observing and listening to the feelings of others is the basis for successful social interaction.

Cognitive empathy

A second idea, the Theory of Mind, brings the brain into the equation.

As the brain develops, cognitive empathy adds our thoughts and knowledge to physical mimicry.

Empathy evolves slowly over time as it is modeled and information is gained. This allows us to develop theories and predict how others may think and feel.

Parenting & empathy development

To be compassionate and to learn empathy requires ongoing encouragement and modeling, in order to take hold and flourish.

A long-term study by Zhou and team (2002) showed connections between how parenting style and parents’ own emotional expression translate into the development of empathy and social competence in children. Researchers evaluated additional factors including disciplinary style and parents’ emotional responses.

Greater empathy and social competence were found in children with supportive and affectionate parents who expressed more positive emotions in front of their offspring (but not solely directed towards their child).

Empathic and kind role models, able to articulate supportive emotions openly, help breed the same. Beyond that, research shows how empathy can be taught and encouraged in children.

Teaching, encouraging empathy

The Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has found that there are several fundamental ways that empathy can be encouraged within families.

Beyond showing empathy for our own children, discussing feelings and encouraging young children to take another’s perspective in social interactions is an important part of empathy development.

Teaching language of emotions and learning to discuss their own, as well as the feelings of others, helps children identify better with themselves, develop self-awareness and self-control.

As kids begin to recognize their own feelings, they also start to understand the thoughts, emotions and motives of those around them, helping in making connections and in conflict-resolution.

Real empathy relies on having these cognitive understandings of the experiences, feelings and motivations of others. This lays important groundwork for emotional intelligence – found to be a key factor in success in life.

Strength lies in differences, not in similarities.” - Stephen R. Covey

Our circles of concern

Like adults, the more homogenous a child’s social circle, the more superficial and stereotyped their understanding of people different from themselves.

Broadening our tribes to include a range of friends lays the groundwork for connection into diverse lives, feelings and perspectives. Including people less fortunate or struggling, can create an understanding from which empathy and compassion can grow.

Compassion as a verb

There is no shortage of people who could use a little compassion nowadays.

Teaching children to turn their attention away from themselves to someone else, or some cause bigger, emphasizes the value in seeing, understanding and then helping others.

Whether checking in on an elderly neighbor or writing letters intended to uplift a cancer patient’s day, showing what compassion looks like in action and providing regular opportunities to practice and prioritize growing empathy has long-term impact.

Ignoring differences don’t make kids color-blind

For many, having discussions with kids about race, inequality or discrimination is uncomfortable.

Often parents, mostly of the white persuasion, can feel that by not calling attention to differences, children will grow up color-blind and free of prejudice.

The reality is that children are keenly aware of, and assign meaning to differences between people beginning from an early age. Studies by developmental psychologist, Rebecca Bigler at the University of Texas have found that developmentally, young children are easily susceptible to preferring others like themselves.

In the absence of early discussions about race and gender, differences clearly visible to kids does nothing to modify this basic default mode. Kids are moving ahead with assumptions regardless.

Without facts and context, their hypotheses are based on the information they pick up around them, may not be what you had in mind.

Information used to protect and prepare

There are millions upon millions of families that don’t have the luxury however, of just not talking about race and discrimination.

Research shows that for families of color, conversations about race and discrimination happen earlier and more often than those of whites, as a necessary way to protect and prepare kids for the real world.

Professor and clinical psychologist, April Harris-Britt (UNC, Chapel Hill) found that being prepared for the reality of prejudice was important and beneficial.

However, she conditioned that too much focus on assumptions of future injustice can be just as harmful as actual discrimination itself. In waiting and expecting others to limit us, we can limit ourselves.

Hard, open, factual conversations

Research shows that kids exposed to honest, open discussions about racial, gender and other types differences between people, and of bias and inequality, go on to better perceive broader institutional biases in society.

Bigler found through experiments that white children who received a full and accurate depiction of historical discrimination showed a far better opinion of black people than those that received a sterilized account of events.

Whitewashing is ineffective. Comfort aside, it’s direct and explicit that works.

It’s bringing up topics like race or gender inequality, where it comes from and how damaging it is. It’s talking about discrimination, and how it shows up differently in different places; sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes shockingly not.

It’s actively challenging stereotypes with facts and examples that shatter widely-held and limiting conventions.

In helping children see strength in diverse views and backgrounds rather than something threatening, they can learn to respect differences and start looking instead to all the many things we instead have in common.

All of this empowers and readies the next generation for the real and changing world with all the people different from themselves in it.

Value in diverse team, common goal

The Perception Institute researches bias and discrimination and helps in developing solutions in overcoming them. Co-founder Rachel Godsil says that team-based projects and causes help to minimize external differences between people, and rather emphasizes individual strengths and our common humanness.

The courage of empathy in action

Ultimately, it’s behavior and action that makes a difference. Not what we believe, not what we post.

It is being able to go beyond discussions and even exposure, to courageous action on behalf of others, often unlike ourselves, and often against serious headwinds.

Racism isn’t a black or brown issue like sexism isn’t a woman’s issue. If it was, it’d be fixed by now.

Whatever our demographics, we are each part of the solution or part of the problem.

We need people, especially on the inside, to stand and be counted. If you sit around the boardroom and let it happen; if you grab your phone first and just record it happen, you’re in it too.

Children can be forewarned of bias and discrimination but they can also be empowered with empathy and courage. Encourage kids to see a role for themselves in taking action, treating people fairly, and standing up for others even when unpopular.

Practicing common scenarios of discrimination and different ways to respond can aid the boldness it takes in the moment to challenge and stand to advocate for yourself or others.

We need the connection and understanding necessary to fuel empathy now more than ever.

Indelibly connected, we will sink or swim together. Aren’t you all sick and tired of rowing in a circle?

Call it empathy, compassion, social justice, whatever:

Our communities, this country, the world at large needs more of all, or any of it.

If you get the chance: It’s never too early to help raise a future adult that the world could use more of.


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