Huffpost Parents
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Devishobha Ramanan Headshot

Shaping an Empathic Tomorrow

Posted: Updated:

It was a usual evening. After finishing with the homework, I was ushering the kids out the door for their playtime when I suddenly felt a sharp, debilitating pain in my abdomen. I staggered to the couch and slumped into it. I had not noticed that my daughter had followed me to the couch until I felt two little hands prop a pillow under my head and gently pry away my phone from my hand. As I lay there battling the pain, I suddenly felt cognizant of the silence around me. I opened my eyes to watch my daughter clearly struggling having to make up her mind. I smiled at her and said, "I will be fine. You go ahead and join your friends." She responded, "But, how can I leave you in pain?"

What my daughter displayed was a high level of empathy . Child psychologists Mehrabian and Epstein define empathy as a vicarious emotional response to the perceived emotional experiences of others. In this case, my daughter was not only able to feel the distress I was facing, but she was also able to give up or at least postpone instant gratification to grapple with a situation that was far more stressful. She was barely six.

In the past, the measure for a child's potential for success as an adult was only based on test methodologies that measure the Intelligence Quotient, commonly known as IQ. However, studies conducted by psychologists like John Mayer, Peter Salovey and Daniel Goleman have established that many children who displayed exceptional levels of IQ have either been only at par with their counterparts with average IQ or only slightly better, because excellence also needs another important trait. Those who fared among the top successes were people who also had something called emotional maturity. Thus, a new dimension for intelligence was born, the Emotional Quotient or the now ubiquitous EQ.

The good part is that though EQ may require nurturing, many children appear to naturally display emotional intelligence. Even infants seem to be able to tell an angry voice from a soothing voice.

I recollect a little experiment I did when my daughters were little. I would tap on the bottom of my 9-month-old daughter. She would look at me, startled. If I looked angry, she would start to cry. But, if I followed it with a smile, she would smile back at me. After a few months, she was able to tell from my eyes if I was really annoyed or just faking it with her. If I were faking it, she would laugh to show me that she knows it.

(Disclaimer: I am not a psychologist. These were done purely to satisfy the curiosity of a mother.)

According to Dr. Goleman, Emotional Intelligence has gained such rapid and overarching prominence that many schools across the world today include and mandate something called Social and Emotional Learning, or SEL, as part of their learning curriculum. Children in early elementary school are encouraged to identify their feelings and name them. By the time they reach late elementary years, they are trained to identify non-verbal cues about other people's feelings. In high school, there is much emphasis on listening, conflict-resolution and negotiation skills -- skills that are vital to success in any field. Studies have shown that such reinforcement has not only reduced violent behavior among teenagers, but also helped improve academic performance.

While organized learning can help enhance EQ in children, everyday parenting has a big role in fostering these traits in children.

Foremost among them are:

Listen: Talking to our children while fiddling with our gadgets is so common these days that many children don't even complain about it. A few years later, we can expect them to talk to us in the same way -- a distant nod or a monosyllable in response while Facebooking or gaming.

Setting aside some time to listen to your child uninterruptedly can make a big difference.

Acknowledge: Rivalry among siblings, skirmishes among friends, uncomfortable relationships with adults can snowball into deeper negative emotions if ignored while they try to express their anguish. Trivializing their feelings can have permanent effects on communication patterns between parents and children. On the other hand, letting them dwell too much on trivial issues can also encourage self-pity. This might be a good time to reinforce the "think in the other's shoes" concept and encourage them to talk about their feelings and others as well.

Show: The best way for children to learn empathy is when they see it being doled out by us in generous quantities.Things like asking your child's sick friend if she needs something or attending to her wound can have lasting impressions on your child's emotional bank. How we deal with our relationships, how calm we are under stressful situations act as constant pointers to our children.

Like everything else, the founding stones to building an emotionally mature society begins at home.

Visit the author's blog at www.kidskintha.com