Empathy vs. Sympathy

Social-Emotional Learning or SEL is the new buzz word in K-12 schools right now. It used to be 21st Century Skills but now it's SEL and I'm all for it. I've developed from scratch a SEL curriculum for a previous school to use and I consult with schools locally and nationally about this topic. People often ask me what is the most important skill students should learn from a SEL curriculum? Wow- just one, that's a tough question to answer but if I can only choose just one then I'd have to say understanding what empathy truly means and knowing the power of perspective taking.

Brene Brown wonderfully describes the distinction between empathy and sympathy in this video:  For me, the most powerful piece of this video is when she says, "in order to connect with you I have to make the vulnerable choice to connect with that feeling deep inside myself." So how can we teach that skill to children?

First of all, let's be honest that many adults are still learning the distinction between empathy and sympathy so for children, at the heart of empathy is perspective taking. Here's an example: Your son comes home and says, "This kid in my class eats lunch by himself every day. I feel so sorry for him." A sympathetic response from you might sound like "Oh, that's so sad. I'm glad you have friends to eat with." In order to help children learn perspective taking, they first have to identify what feeling that other person might be experiencing. Let's try a more empathetic approach. "How would you feel if you had no one to eat lunch with?" Your son replies, "I'd feel embarrassed and lonely." You respond using the same feeling words he identified and reflect, "You'd feel embarrassed and lonely. Has there ever been a time when you felt that way?" It's possible that your son might say no, but I bet instead he might say something like, "Yeah the first night of overnight camp I felt that way." This exchange is an example of perspective taking by encouraging your child to a) name a feeling that the image he described elicits, b) think of a situation when he has felt the same feeling, and maybe even c) brainstorm a strategy that shows an empathetic response to his classmate. 

Written by Kathleen Goodman

Written by Kathleen Goodman