Happy Students: The need for empathy and gratitude

Charles Jackard
Charles Jackard

By Charles Jackard, EdD

Empathy and gratitude are extremely important. We teach life skills, decision-making skills and goal setting to prevent substance abuse, gang activity and juvenile delinquency. We must realize that empathy and gratitude are just as critical.

An article from New York Parenting talks about these skills. Gratitude (self focused) is when a person focuses on the positives in their life, which can result in personal happiness, optimism, lack of stress and satisfaction.

Empathy (other centered) is when you see life through the lens of others, which is a skill in building healthy relationships and a better desire to help and share. These skills are some of the greatest predictors for how successful a child will be in the 21st century.

Unfortunately many youth today lack these skills. An article from Scientific American analyzes a study that concludes almost 75 percent of youth today rate themselves as less empathic than the average youth 30 years ago.

Skillful application of empathy and gratitude stretches the potential to impact positively on all personal and professional relationships. Problems of abuse, depression, crime, suicide, and a host of other problems would likely decrease if human beings increased their dosages of empathy. Conversely the absence of empathy and gratitude can lead to negative results. Empathy spread among all people in all environments can make the difference between depression and joy in everyday life. Empathy could well be the strongest get-well treatment in society.
So what can we doing to teach our youth these skills?

Understanding others involves understanding their feelings on a specific matter, in addition to their background that brought them to this point. Empathy involves mirroring back your perceptions of the other person’s feelings until the perceptions are understood accurately. True empathy requires an attempt to become at one with another individual.

The language of empathy is language of respect and gratitude. The respect comes in the form of wording (telling youth how you will act, not how they have to act), and tone of voice. Sarcasm and putdowns are never an acceptable part of empathy; when another person tries to control a youth in this way, it usually backfires. When an adult expresses empathy, there is no negative for youth to react to. We all need to express gratitude for our lives and the lives of others.

Empathy does not mean that you have to respond in soft ways, just respond with a caring and understanding attitude. The powerful aspect of empathy stems from the fact that we don’t want so much to be agreed with as to just be understood. Empathy can validate without necessarily condoning one’s behavior. Consequences will do the teaching and empathy will lock in the meaning. This approach will rule out anger in most situations.

Empathy requires those working with youth the need to get to know them, encourage them, and show an interest in their activities and lives. Many people think all that is needed is respect. While respect is important, it is earned through friendship (empathy) not demanded. Empathy is an important part of discipline. When working with youth, use enforceable statements. Empathize with the youths’ need to make their own decisions and control their own lives. Personal responsibility is an important component to teach and model.

Remember empathy is first of all an internal quality, an attitude of loving, caring, oneness with the participants in your life. Empathy with one’s self is at the root of empathy for others. Developing the inward quality of empathy is the foundation to the outward expression of it. Empathy is essential to the wise choices of priorities in anyone’s life since helpful relationships are an important part of life. In order to have true empathy, whatever is important to another person must be equally important to you.

Leawood resident Charles Jackard is an education expert and the former principal of Horizons Academy in northeast Johnson County. You can read more of his work on his website here.

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