The other day I posted about how researchers believe it is empathy that sets
vegetarians and vegans apart from omnivores (see post). So it got me thinking a lot about empathy today. Beyond the textbook definition of it, what do experts think about it and is it something we can teach to our children? Or are we just somehow born with it?
I spent some time researching empathy and I came across this interesting piece. The article makes several points that I find of importance, including that empathy is "...regarded by many people as the foundation of moral behavior."
The article also discusses how people come to have empathy, and it turns out it is a combination of our experiences, what we see, and what we are taught, among other things. It is important to teach empathy to our children. There are ways we can go about doing this. Here are several I came up with:
- Model empathy. Every time my children see me relocate a spider outside of the house, rather than kill it, they have learned that even a spider has the right to life. They learn to see even the smallest of creatures with empathy. Every time they see me eat vegan food they learn I have made a conscious choice to not harm other animals.
- Talk about feelings that animals have. If a child asks why you don't just kill the bug, explain that it has feelings, will feel pain, may have babies somewhere, wants to live, should not pay with its life for being in the wrong place, etc.
- Discuss what they have in common with other animals. People find it easier to have empathy for humans because they can relate more to their pain or discomfort. Helping kids identify those things they have in common with other animals, such as pain, breathing, fear, families, hunger, etc., will help to make more of a connection.
- Use good books and videos to help them learn empathy through entertaining means. Most kids easily connect to such movies as Babe or Charlotte's Web. You can find a variety of these options all reviewed at VegBooks.org.
- Try role playing so that kids can see what another animal may feel like. Kids love to play games and if you are discussing the circus or a zoo, have kids pretend to be the animal in the cage or made to perform. This will give them an idea of what the situation may feel like. Older children can engage in writing that involves them creating stories about animals, their feelings and various situations
- Help them connect to animals as often as possible so that they learn they have personalities, are fun, interesting, etc. You can do this by visiting sanctuaries, family farms, humane societies, or the animals down the road.
(pictured: my son petting a horse at a sanctuary)