You don’t have to look at the world around you for very long to find people who are acting in unkind and unloving ways to others. Unfortunately, a quick scroll through social media and you will even find some of the meanest, most unloving posts written by people who think of themselves as Christians.
We know from scripture and the life of Jesus, that God wants our kids to be kind, considerate, loving, generous, forgiving, selfless people. If the world doesn’t support those qualities in our children and they don’t see them reflected in the lives of many of the Christians they know, how can we ever convince them to live the lives God wants them to live?
Obviously, talking about scriptures and Bible stories is crucial, but you also need to help them develop a loving, servant, empathetic heart. There are some exercises you can do with them to encourage them to think of others instead of only themselves. (Philippians 2:3-5) Here are some of our favorites.
- Encourage them to put themselves in the shoes of other people. While this is suggested frequently, it’s not as easy to do as some might think. Try this exercise when discussing a character in a show or book first to make it a bit easier. At various points stop and ask your kids what the character may be thinking or feeling at that point in the story. What clues do they have to support their ideas? (Bonus, this will help them in literature class at school, too!)
- Teach them to ask questions of new people they meet that will help them find things they have in common with the other person. Brain science has found if we view someone as too different from ourselves, our brain tends to dehumanize the other person. It’s a trick politicians use to solidify their power base, but it’s a counterproductive way as Christians to interact with those who may seem very different from us. Have your kids practice on older relatives and family friends who understand the purpose of the exercise so your kids will be comfortable doing it with peers.
- Encourage them to read biographies and other non-fiction books that give an insight into the lives of people in a wide variety of circumstances. A great way to develop empathy for someone is to hear their story. Even situations you think you understand are probably a fraction of what the real people in those situations experienced. If possible, read about multiple people in similar circumstances. It’s important for your kids to understand that people in the same basic circumstances can still have very different experiences.
- If you travel outside of your region with your kids, visit the local market or grocery store. Our family realized sticking to the tourist spots didn’t give us a realistic view of what life is really like for those who live there. Hang out at the market or other places where locals gather, however, and your kids may get a much more accurate perspective.
- Help them understand the difference between forgiveness and condoning. Our secular world is struggling at the moment with the concepts of forgiveness, atonement and redemption and their understanding of those terms is often far from Biblical. The life of Jesus provides plenty of great examples. Jesus forgave Peter, for example, for betraying him, yet did not condone what Peter had done. Jesus also fully restored his relationship with Peter and did not expect Peter to suffer at his hands in order to have a relationship with him again. Zacchaeus not only asked for forgiveness for his sins, but tried to atone for them by repaying what he had stolen…plus some extra. Your kids will struggle with empathy if they expect to exact revenge on everyone who hurts them. Learning to truly forgive can change how they treat others when they make mistakes or sin against them in some way.
Some children seem to be born empathetic, while others struggle. Wherever your kids fall on the spectrum, they will need encouragement to treat others empathetically. And don’t forget….if you treat others with empathy, your kids will also learn from your example.