Most children struggle with understanding another’s point of view.
It has long been thought that people with autism have “no empathy” and it’s really only now that this concept is beginning to be understood.
These children certainly feel emotions, arguably more strongly than neurotypical children. They just have a lot of trouble understanding how other people are feeling and they have great difficulty expressing empathy in terms that others can understand.
Throw in the immersive “special interests”, a tendency for bluntness and black and white thinking and it’s easy to see where the “no empathy” idea came from.
One of the first steps in overcoming this issue is to encourage your child to look past their own point-of-view and to try to understand how other people feel. It’s not an easy concept to teach but it’s certainly a worthwhile one.
We often talk about individuality but rarely fully explain the concept to our children. “We’re all different”, we tell them, and then we tend to leave it at that.
Our children believe that they understand. Some kids have blonde hair, some black, some brown. There’s a great variation in eye colour and shape and in various other features. Our concept of individuality tends to be primarily external.
We need to take extra steps to ensure that our children understand that individuality is very much an internal thing. Everyone thinks differently and our thinking is moulded by our past experiences and by our upbringing.
A good way to explain this is to talk about a solid object, such as a car and to ask for the child’s opinion.
Once you have the child’s opinion, ask:
- What would a very rich person, such as a king, think of the car?
- What would a very poor person think?
- What would a person who has never seen a car think?
Another good example would be to talk about the value of food to various people from different walks of life. Your child might hate carrots but you may find that it’s never occurred to him to think that some people actually love them.
Realize Different Values & Expectations
Once your child has grasped the concept of individual thinking, the next step is to understand that people have different values. The car example leads into this by demonstrating how the concept of value changes depending upon a person’s wealth.
Life values are surprisingly similar. A person who lives among liars may place very little value on the truth because they automatically expect to be lied to, while a person from a very truthful family may always expect the truth. Each is correct in their own world, but when they interact with each other problems will occur. Each will expect a different behaviour from the other.
Clashes in values invariably lead to conflict. I’ve always told my children that their ideal life-partner will be someone who shares the same sorts of values as them. They can come from different religions, different cultures or different economic backgrounds but so long as their values are similar, their relationship will stand a chance.
The basic tenet of value is respect. You must be able to identify and respect that which is valued by others.
Sadly, I’d argue that more than half of the people in today’s society lack this level of respect.
Teaching your children to respect the values of others is difficult. Unfortunately, people don’t generally wear their values on their sleeve for everyone to see and it’s hard to respect that which you don’t understand. I’ve spent many of our car trips explaining different religious points of view to my children, trying to teach them to respect the beliefs and values of others. I believe that I’ve largely succeeded but taking the concept further into “invisible values” isn’t going to be easy.
Recognize Differences in Sensitivities
My final point concerns differences in sensitivity. Everyone has different sensitivities and we all carry a lot of emotional baggage. Even worse, those sensitivities shift with time and circumstance.
For example, larger people have problems with the word “fat” while slimmer people do not. The exception here is slim pregnant people, who suddenly develop a lot of issues for a brief period of time.
This is very difficult concept to explain to children. You don’t want to point out your child’s own sensitivities to them but sometimes pointing them out is the only way to get them to understand that others have sensitivities too. Sometimes, the direct approach is far more effective than simply telling your child not to make personal observations. After all, sensitivities go well beyond simple appearances.
Teach by Example
Learning is not something that is just for the classroom. Learning continues throughout all parts of life. As a parent, the best that you can do is make the most of the examples that life throws in your direction. Whenever the opportunity arises to show your children that others can have a different point-of-view, seize that opportunity and make the very most of it. Remember that the best role model that your child can have, is you.