Voices

Teaching children empathy as a way to see and address poverty

How can we redefine "selfishness" with our children so it includes all, not only ourselves? Joy Bennett describes how to help kids grow stronger in empathy.

How can we redefine “selfishness” with our children so it includes the thriving of all humans, not only ourselves?

Blogger Joy Bennett describes three ways to help our kids grow stronger in empathy.

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My children and I are self-focused. Humans needed to be in order to survive throughout human history. We don’t need this today, as middle-class citizens in North America. Survival is no longer on the line. But instead of turning outward to help others still wobbling on the edge of life and death, we have warped and distorted this self-focus into a monster: selfishness.

Selfishness redefines “need” to include anything we want. It prioritizes and pursues those “needs” first, willfully excluding anything that doesn’t directly serve us. It flourishes in a life of stability and abundance and blinds us to the needs of others.

My children were born into a life of stability. We’ve had seasons where we had to watch our spending very closely, but they don’t know what it’s like to live day to day or hour-by-hour, which is a beautiful thing.

But it also means that our selfishness is powerful. As parents, we need to teach our kids how to weaken their selfishness. By learning to expand their field of vision to include others, empathize, and then both recognize and shoulder the responsibility that accompanies a life of stability, they can help others who lack it.

We can’t (and probably shouldn’t) completely kill selfishness — it’s a survival skill deeply embedded in our DNA. But we can redefine what serves ourselves to include the thriving of all humans, not just us.

Here are three ways in which we’re trying to help our children grow stronger in empathy and weaker in selfishness:

1. Say no

Our kids need to learn early that they don’t get everything they want. They need to grapple with unmet desires, experience delayed gratification, and get comfortable with the sensation of self-denial.

As a parent, this is really hard to do. I want to give my children what they want — I love the joy I experience when I watch their eyes light up. But I hate the constant barrage of demands, arguments, whining, complaining, and inability to be grateful for what they have. It wears me down and discourages me. But they must experience these feelings now, learn to deal with them, and accept that being told no is a part of life.

2. Explain why

Our children need to understand how we make decisions. They need to see that we consider factors outside of what we want, things like:

  • “What’s best for the rest of the family?”
  • “What are the other options?”
  • “Does this help us achieve our long-term goals?”
  • “Could this hurt someone we care about?”

Yes, it’s irritating when the kids want to argue over why. But in sharing our thought process, we model for them what it looks like to listen to and take into account the people around us, recognizing that our choices have consequences for others. We demonstrate what it looks like to empathize and incorporate generosity into our plans.

3. Ask questions and listen to the answers

When I’m caught in the throes of selfishness, I assume I know everything I need to know, I talk over others, and I don’t listen. Selfishness by nature is very arrogant. Being willing to ask a question requires me to admit that I don’t know the answer, that I need to know the answer, and that I’m willing to hear the answer. It also shows my children that how to do this, too.

Our family isn’t consistent yet, but our kids are beginning to truly see the struggles others face and to ask how we can help. That begins a new conversation about when helping hurts and about people who are doing it well.

And those moments give us hope.


What if summer wasn’t a break from school, but an opportunity to change the world? Check out World Vision’s PLAY-It-Forward Challenges: 10 fun family games that help your kids learn how to pay it forward this summer — with stories of real families who’ve made a difference!

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