The world often feels overwhelming, out of control and oftentimes, beyond our abilities as individuals to make it better, safer and more just. Add to that a general societal decline in empathy, well, it can make anyone want to stay in bed and binge Netflix all day.
Empathy, as defined by The Oxford English Dictionary, is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. More than pity and sympathy, empathy helps us to experience someone else's feelings for ourselves. And as a society, we have been slowly sliding down the empathy scale over the last few decades.
A study conducted by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research found that college students in 2009 were 40% less empathetic than they were in 1979. In this study, researchers found that these students were less likely to describe themselves as “soft-hearted” or to have “tender, concerned feelings” for others. And while their connectedness to each other via technology had increased, it was not necessarily translating into genuine concern for the world and one another.
Your Role in Bringing Up Empathy
What can we do about our collective slip down the empathy slide? A good place to start is to remember that we are all essential parts of our larger communities. We all have a role to play in making our homes, schools and neighborhoods a more pleasant place to be. And while we may not be able to control all the goings on out there, we can start by making our small day-to-day world the kind and empathetic place we want it to be.
Increasing society’s empathy rates is doable, and the solutions include actively participating in volunteering.
How to Tone Your Family's Empathy Muscle
Empathy is a skill that we can all learn and hone. No different than lifting weights to be lean and fit; empathy is muscle we can build. And just as working out takes time and dedication, putting empathy into action through volunteering is always worth the effort. When you engage in volunteering, especially with your child, you start to develop a powerful tool for increasing empathy in our world.
Here are three simple ways to flex your family's empathy muscle:
Get outside your comfort zone
When we step outside of our comfort zones of home and school activities and move into an unfamiliar environment, we begin to experience another person's reality. When we drive across town to work in a food pantry, we drive through neighborhoods and see firsthand how and where our fellow community members live. When we volunteer alongside another family or interact directly with recipients of our volunteer work, we expose ourselves to people outside of our normal social circle. Volunteering provides us with experiences and interactions that challenge us and helps to provide a shift in our thinking.
Get better acquainted with your values…and your kids' values too
What do you care about and why? More importantly, do you know what issues your kids care about? Volunteering can be the key to opening discussions with your children about your family's values as well as learning about the issues that keep them up at night.
“I have learned that my daughter has an incredible desire to help Mother Earth and cannot fathom how people would want to hurt “her” which is a passion that I did not know she had. The questions, opinions and discussions that follow our volunteering days are so incredible and have allowed us to discuss some harder-to-reach topics that we have not really covered before.” Ashley, Crafting Kind Kids family volunteer
Get to see firsthand the needs in the community
When we volunteer, we get to see and hear firsthand what the needs are within our community. Beyond talking points or news headlines, volunteering provides us with a firsthand, tangible way to give back, and to influence and impact our community in a positive way.
Empathy: The Secret Sauce to Kind Kids
We all want to raise kind, empathetic and compassionate kids. And while a Saturday morning volunteer activity will not solve all of society's woes, it can be enough to spark the flame of empathy in our kids and ourselves. When we volunteer, we plant the seeds of working with others, interacting with people outside of our typical social circle, and broadening our understanding of the needs impacting our fellow community members.
So how will you flex your family's empathy muscle today?