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Empathy, earthworms, and e.t.

I was not feeling well this past week, which meant lots of rest and lots of movies. I watched E.T. for the first time in a long time. You remember E.T., right? The 1982 film about the squashy little alien that was stranded on earth and befriended by a human boy named Elliott? Yeah, that’s the one. Anywho, the most famous lines from this movie are probably E.T. phone home and be good, but here was another quote that has stuck with me the past few days. In this scene, Elliott and E.T. are being monitored by government scientists in a clandestine hospital/lab. Neither of them is doing well, health wise, and one of the scientists is asking Elliott’s mother and brother, Michael, all kinds of questions. The end of this exchange goes something like this:

Scientist: You said he has the ability to manipulate its own environment?

Michael: He’s smart. He communicates through Elliott.

Scientist: Elliott thinks its thoughts.

Michael: No, Elliott…Elliott feels his feelings.

What Michael meant was that Elliott was literally feeling all of E.T.’s emotional experiences, which happens throughout the movie. It had me thinking about empathy and how we teach this to our children. This past spring, my son was helping me get our garden ready. He was digging in the dirt and hit the earthworm jackpot. He gently pulled each worm he found from the dirt and would drape each wiggly one over his arm and leg. I thought it was a great opportunity to squeeze a mini science lesson in, so we talked about the different parts of the worms and how they are helpful to gardens. Then, my son said to me that he needed to put them back into the dirt because they liked the cool, dark dirt and would not feel good being in the warm sun and open, dry air for too long. He gently dug little holes and carefully put the worms back in the garden. When I think back on that moment, it seems that perhaps he is learning empathy, whether it has been intentionally taught or not.

Empathy can be tricky to define and is often confused with sympathy. The difference is that with empathy, we come to understand each other by experiencing the same feelings. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone and not necessarily understanding what they are going through. So how do we encourage our children to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, so to speak? This happens in little moments and through our role modeling. We are teaching them empathy when they scrape their knee and we say, Ouch, that hurts so much! Or when they are staaaaaarrrrrrviiiiiiiing and you are still 15 minutes away from home and you say I know how hungry your tummy is and it’s so hard to wait. We show them when they see us offering support to a friend or family member who is struggling with something we have been through ourselves. Empathy is one of the ways we relate and understand each other as humans. Even if we have not had the exact same experience as someone else, surely, we have felt many of the same emotions that might come up.

Sometimes it can seem easy for us adults to brush off a child’s display of big emotions as silly, dramatic, or uncalled for. For us to connect with our kids and show them empathy and understanding, we must think back to times when we had a hard time, too. A time when we fell and maybe scraped an elbow. A time when we worked all day only to have to come home and do even more work. A time when we forgot to have lunch because we were so busy and now it is an hour until dinner and we are crabby and hangry. Modeling empathy to our children is important not only to help grow their social-emotional development, but it deepens our relationship with them as well. They feel seen, heard, and understood. They know that someone gets it and can hold space for them. Their emotions and experience are validated and respected. And really, isn’t that what we all want?

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