Why is empathy important? First, empathy breeds courage. In a recent study of nearly 900 youth, ages 11-13, Nicola Abbott and Lindsey Cameron’s, psychology researchers at University of Kent, found that participants with higher levels of empathy were more likely to engage in “assertive bystander behavior.” In other words, they were willing to stand up to a bully on behalf of someone outside their peer group. This kind of courage can be life changing for a victim of bullying and prevent the damaging effects of social isolation and exclusion that often lead to anxiety and depression.
Empathy also yields happiness. People with empathy have stronger interpersonal connections and are more eager to collaborate, effectively negotiate, demonstrate compassion, and offer support. They’re team players, and employers recognize this. So important has this skill become that a research team in England, after engaging in a six-month review of its schools, submitted a report that placed empathy in the top three of important outcomes for its students. Similarly, employers, when asked to compile a list of the “20 People Skills You Need to Succeed at Work,” placed it fifth.
Pretend play helps children self-regulate, develop a strong “theory of mind,” and integrate positive and negative emotions. When kids adopt different personas, they face dilemmas and solve problems “in character” – in essence, they’re taking empathy for a test drive. Play researcher Dorothy Singer, Senior Researcher at Yale University’s School of Medicine, contends that make believe helps children “be anyone they wish.” Through it, they “learn how to cope with feelings, how to bring the large, confusing world into a small, manageable size; and how to become socially adept as they share, take turns and cooperate with each other.” Parents can expand boy’s empathic skills through pretend play by blurring the traditional pink-blue boundary lines. Toy kitchens should co-exist with trucks, doll houses with action figures.
Empathy, “an understanding that other people have feelings, and that those feelings count,” is a learned behavior. For boys, as for girls, that learning begins in infancy. As University of Wisconsin’s Carolyn Zahn-Waxler aptly notes, “There is no gene for empathy.” Parents play a key role in nurturing empathy, from explaining others’ feelings to encouraging prosocial behaviors with friends and siblings. Playroom toys and forms of play are equally important. Given all the benefits associated with empathy for success in life and work, it seems like now, more than ever, we need to mind the gap.
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