Teenagers can be a tricky bunch of people. They want to be understood, yet they take so little time to understand. There’s one trait I’ve seen repeatedly missing in teenagers, and it is a trait I had to learn as a teenager as well. This trait is empathy.
Just the other day, I sat with a teenager for an hour trying to get him to see my perspective. What was so hard about stepping into my shoes? He looked at me and said to me, “I don’t see why it would benefit me to understand what you think. All I need to know is what I think.” In that moment, it sunk deep into my heart that our teenagers in America have a serious lack of empathy, and it’s a problem that needs to be addressed immediately.
Empathy is first taught in the home. Young children are very capable of empathy and should be taught this from the very start. What’s the best way for children to learn how to do something? It’s for them to see it being done. I can remember my mother, having just bought a water bottle for herself at the gas station, hand that water to a homeless man. I thought she was a superhero, and I felt an intense increase in empathy as my mom described why she gave him her water. It is the parents' role to teach children how to have empathy. If empathy is taught at a young age, children are able to apply this to their lives forever. Show them empathy, live empathetically and teach them why we do it.
Empathy has an important role to play in schools. I remember one teacher in high school who instilled empathy in my core. One of the boys in my class referred to her with a derogatory name. She stopped class. She had him repeat the word out loud. She wrote it in huge letters on the board and asked him the definition of the word. She asked him how he thought this made her feel. I’ll never forget the look on this boy’s face as he sat there with empathy in his eyes. That word became real to him, and the feelings that somebody has when they’re called that word became very real to him, too. If our children have empathy, school bullying would be greatly reduced. The boy who was taught empathy in my class that day probably never used that word again. There has to be a way to reduce bullying by increasing empathy in our teens.Comment on this story
If we were to get our teenagers out of the house, away from phones and electronics, they could learn empathy through life experiences. Get them involved. If they do sports, have a conversation about how they can use empathy with their competition. Let them see the world around them and learn how great they really have it. Being involved in the community allows them to see the struggles that are happening down the road and allows them to take part in service — a great empathy inducer. As we get our teenagers out and serving in our communities, I truly believe we will see their empathy grow.
We have the capability to make changes in teenage lives. Whether we are parents, coaches, teachers or part of their community, we can help teach children and teenagers empathy — a life-changing skill they will use for the rest of their lives.