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Circle the Wagons: How Children Learn to Express Empathy

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Infants as young as 6 months have the ability to demonstrate empathy, according to current research. Whether or how empathy develops as the child grows is a whole different story. Here we go again, nature vs. nurture. A recent experience of mine points to an answer.

Cancer came to my door. The experience came as a total shock. Even I, the healthiest person I know, did not escape the reach of The Big C. A totally successful surgery was followed by a less successful post-op experience, and I found myself having a second surgery to deal with life-threatening complications. Thankfully, all of that is history. And I am on the mend, but that is not the point.

A professional nurturer, my career is built around helping people. Being in the position of needing help and support was new territory. As I spiraled downhill, I had no choice. First, it was my own adult children who stepped up to the plate. Home they flew, as my husband cut short his Asian business trip and raced to the homestead. Role reversal: They took over. The second caregiving team, all my dear friends, was close behind. As the pioneers of long ago did to protect one another against danger, they circled the wagons. They buoyed me in a way I have never experienced.

And as word spread, clients far and wide ran to give their support and love in droves -- with cards, notes, emails, phones calls, errands, a home filled with flowers, a refrigerator spilling over with chicken soup and fare from the finest eateries, and gifts to pamper a healing body. The outpouring of love and support was beyond any I could have imagined. Talk about a show of empathy.

A mom client sent me a lovely handmade card. Included in her well-wishes was the story of how she wept when she read about my illness. Her son asked her what was wrong and so she shared with him "The Story of Betsy" and how sad it made her. Together, they made my special card.

While children might be predisposed to being empathetic, it is clear to me that active lasting empathy is cultivated and nurtured when practiced daily in the home.

When your child's play-date gets canceled due to a friend's illness, do you assuage his disappointment with an outing to the park? What if, instead, you modeled empathy by making a card or baking a batch of cookies for the sick playmate? The parent who bakes an extra loaf of banana bread for the ill neighbor, the father who includes the child of an absent parent in his family's weekend outing, the mother who creates a garden bouquet or father who prepares his special lasagna for a grieving family -- all model and thereby teach empathy.

Last week, I chatted with the daughter of a dear colleague whose husband just died. I shared how taken I was with the awe-inspiring attentiveness shown by her and her brother as Wally was dying, sleeping every night with their mother, taking care of all communications and details for her. Shana's reply? "My mama taught me."

Can there be any question who really teaches a child empathy first?