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Empathy should be at the top of your family values list

How to teach compassion

Q: How can dads teach compassion and empathy for others? I think it’s the most important lesson to be learned, and the earlier, the better.

Oh, hey! Big question! But I’ll tell you what I know.

I agree that empathy and compassion are incredibly important lessons for us to teach. Sometimes the difference between a person with high character and someone without is their ability to think about others as much as we think about ourselves. The greatest lesson, taught by most major religions in the history of this world, is the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself. That’s for a good reason. It’s as difficult to teach it as it is important that you do so.

“Empathy” is not the same thing as “sympathy,” mind you. Sympathy is feeling bad when someone else is hurting. Empathy is trying to understand why they feel the way they do. And that concept is at the top of the list of our family values in the Happy Hagen Home: Seek to understand. Also, naps are awesome and you really ought to try that sometime.

Is that a value? Or is it too many words?

It’s a big, confusing world. You probably make it easier to live here by not caring about stuff or caring to know why things are the way they are. It’s actually a whole lot of work and requires an enormous amount of research, to understand why grass is green, let alone why a small child feels sad. So, be sure to buckle your seatbelt, prop a pillow and get comfortable. It’s going to be a long ride.

Unless you’re driving. Then don’t get comfortable. Pay attention! 10 and 2, eyes on the road!

(My daughter just turned 8. Halfway to 16, and I’m just getting ready.)

Getting back to empathy, it’s not easy to get into somebody else’s head. It’s difficult enough to get into your own head, if you think about it. We’re not all that self-aware. But that’s the path to discovering how somebody other than yourself is feeling. Just think about how you would feel.

As a parent, teaching empathy is a challenge, because you can’t do it effectively when they’re very young. Self-awareness is the key to this, and kids don’t generally become self-aware until they’re two years old. When they first start to recognize themselves in a mirror, that’s when they’ve developed a sense of self. If you catch your child adjusting their hair in the mirror, get started teaching them about empathy. You’re going to need all the time you can get.

It’s a big concept, and not all adults adequately learn the concept of empathy. I’m going to be 40 this month, and I’m still figuring out that I’m not the only person on Earth.

Being aware that there are people outside of your experience, who all have feelings, thoughts and needs like yours, that’s the key to empathy. Not wanting anyone to feel as bad as you’ve had to feel is also part of it. Understanding that every choice or action we take in life has ramifications, and doing our best to make choices that don’t hurt us or don’t hurt others. If you can teach those concepts to your kids, there’s a good chance you’re doing a great job at raising a fantastic child.

We’re getting a dog, largely for the reasons that I discussed above. Our kids are eight and three (almost four), and we spend a lot of time on empathy and caring about others with them. So, what better way than to put them in charge of the life of a little thing that feels joy and pain and real feelings? Go ahead and see how they like it!

We can pick up our dog in a week, when he’s hit eight weeks old, and we’ll get to work on taking care of a life other than our own. Wish us luck.

So, there’s my advice to the dads, and all parents, for teaching empathy. Consider getting a pet, once they’re old enough and able to understand: Do unto that dog as you would have that dog to you.

Written by Kelly Hagen


Kelly is the Director of Communications at North Dakota United. He has been with NDU since merger in 2013, and worked previously with the North Dakota Public Employees Association since 2011. Kelly is in charge of coordinating and distributing print and electronic communications between members and with the public, is the editor for United Voices magazine, administrates the website and social media properties, and works directly with local leaders to build their own communications infrastructure. Kelly is originally from Wilton, ND. He received an Associate of Arts degree in journalism from Bismarck State College and a Bachelor of Science degree in mass communication from Minnesota State University-Moorhead. Prior to his employment with NDU, he worked for the N.D. Department of Health, the Fargo Forum and the Bismarck Tribune. He lives in Bismarck with his wife, Annette, and their two children.

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