Empathy...in Middle School

Posted by Elizabeth Leinberger, Middle School Faculty on

In 8th grade, we just finished reading the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. One of the main themes that we talked about a lot in class is the idea of “climbing into someone else’s skin and walking around in it”.  Having the ability to see situations through someone else’s eyes and to express and feel that magical word called empathy can sometime seem foreign in the land of middle school. 

In my classroom, behind my desk, hangs a picture of me from middle school.  It is awkward, goofy, and unflattering.  I have it there because it reminds me of what I was like at that age.  When I look at that picture, I remember what a confusing time that was and how my priorities were so skewed. It helps me maintain perspective on what these students are experiencing and provides an amount of empathy needed to help them navigate through the years that some of us would rather forget.

As a middle school teacher and parent of a middle school student, I see kids struggle with this concept on a daily basis.  The natural egocentrism and selfish human nature seems to shine through during this stretch of years.  This, in part, contributes to bigger social problems that can sometimes feel insurmountable.  The inability to walk in someone else’s shoes and to imagine what he or she is going through results in insensitive comments, compassionless behavior, and feelings of isolation. 

So how do we help our kids develop empathy?  How do we assist our children in not just feeling for someone, but with someone?  Are all kids born with this capacity?  I’ve thought about this a lot lately.  Are there things that we, as parents and teachers, can do to help?  I don’t have all the answers, but here’s a few ideas to ponder:

  1. As parents, we tend to focus on the triumphs and successes. We feel proud when our child aces a test or hits the winning shot in a basketball game. We hone in on what assignments need to be completed or what the schedule for that week entails.  Yet, how often do we focus our attention and praise towards character and compassion?  Maybe we need a little less attention on what we succeeded in and a little more on how we treated people in the process. 
  2. We do not like to see our children fail. It hurts us to the core when we see them in pain.  Our natural instinct is to step in and to stand in the way of that hurt.  We want to shield them from discomfort and fix their problems.  In theory, it feels like we are being great parents.  Unfortunately, when we do not allow our children to experience failure, we are hindering them. We are not allowing them to feel the disappointment and in return, crippling them from having an understanding of other people’s feelings.  The empathy cannot develop and the egocentric tendencies are fed.
  3. We need to lead by example. It can be uncomfortable to share our vulnerabilities with our children but when we model tackling our own frustrations with others by trying to see their side of the situation and verbally taking our children through that thought process, we are helping equip them with the tools to apply that to their own situations. As many times as our kids say that they don’t want to be like us when they grow up, they are watching us with a careful eye and will pick up on the traits that we practice.
  4. As parents, it is important to model kindness to everyone. It can be easier to feel empathy for people in our inner circle, but it is just as important to be empathetic for people we do not know as well.  I think it is of the utmost importance to show kindness and appreciation to the people that we come in contact every day.  Showing a personal interest in the waitress who is serving your food or the mailman who delivers your packages models the fact that you see people as human beings who have feelings, instead of means to something you want.

As our kids go through the middle school years and endure the struggles of self-worth and where they fit in, it is comforting to believe that they will be surrounded by people that are empathetic to their feelings.  As parents and teachers, we need to make an effort to help foster these skills and in essence, help to create an environment that will help not only lead them through but to help develop the skills that enable them to aid in that process with others.


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