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Why Is Empathy Important, and How Can I Raise Empathetic Kids?

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The cafeteria is a notoriously stressful environment for kids. In rural Vermont, where I attended high school, any given lunchtime was a crapshoot. One day was all cheeseburgers and laughs; the next, a steaming pile of goulash and exclusion.

One particular lunchtime memory has stuck with me for nearly two and half decades. Several kids were bullying a student with a developmental delay, throwing garbage on the floor just to see her pick it up. It was terrible to watch, but that's all I did: watch. Other kids watched. Lunch monitors watched. We all watched. Whatever our feelings, we didn't do anything. We were bystanders.

A couple of minutes crept by before a senior — a big, quiet kid rumored to live in a house with a dirt floor and a drunk dad — saw what was happening, walked over to the trash-throwing bully, grabbed him, shoved him up against the wall and said, "You think you're better? You think it's funny? What if it was you? You think it'd be funny then? You're not better. You're not different." Then he let the kid go and walked away.

What he so clearly demonstrated — and what the rest of us had failed to demonstrate — was empathy. He looked at the girl and put himself in her shoes, and he asked the bully to do the same.

Why is this important? In addition to making the world a generally nicer place to be, empathetic adults live happier, longer lives. In a Time magazine article, "To Raise Kids With More Empathy, We Need to Do Everything Wrong," parenting expert Dr. Michele Borba writes, "Empathy ... is the cornerstone for becoming a happy, well-adjusted, successful adult. It makes our children more likable, more employable, more resilient, better leaders, more conscience-driven, and increases their life spans."

Empathy can be taught. In a Washington Post article, "10 Ways to Foster Kindness and Empathy in Kids," licensed clinical counselor Phyllis L. Fagell reminds parents that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. She encourages parents to "model compassion by treating friends, acquaintances and colleagues with kindness." She also suggests that exploring the natural world together, practicing mindfulness and giving back to the community are ways to cultivate empathy.

Learning empathy doesn't require a dramatic experience like that day in the cafeteria. Rather, it's a daily practice of trying to connect with others, seeing ourselves in each other, bridging the space between "them" and "us," and teaching our kids to do the same.

In this monthly column, comedian, writer and mom Autumn Spencer answers tricky parenting questions. Have a question for Autumn? Send it to ideas@kidsvt.com.

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