Empathy Comes From Mom and Dad

Filed under: Research Reveals: Toddlers & Preschoolers, Research Reveals: Big Kids, Research Reveals: Tweens

A tiny mouse sitting in a person's hand.New research suggests that empathy -- that so-called "sensitivity chip" Jennifer Aniston famously said Brad Pitt is missing -- is at least partly controlled by our genes. If you feel things, really feel them, thank mom and dad.

This finding is based on a study of the responses of genetically different mice. Scientists tested two groups of mice, one social and one composed of little furry Melvin Udalls. The social critters exhibited distress after watching and hearing another test mouse receive electrical shocks, while their less social mates, well, didn't seem to care much.

The researchers believe this points to an empathy gene. It's an interesting proposition. But as our kids grow, it's really our job to ease them out of the "It's all about me" stage; not to sit back and wait for their empathy genes to kick in.

There are techniques for teaching empathy, including labeling feelings -- "Look, your brother is feeling sad today" -- and praising empathetic actions. Model this behavior yourself and don't overlook basic politeness: Play nice. Be nice. Watch out for your sister. Give Grandma a kiss.

Most importantly, expect the same thing from boys and girls. "We set up this 'boy code' that goes on and on throughout their lives," says Jerry L. Wyckoff, a psychologist and co-author of "Twenty Teachable Virtues." "But if we're careful to teach them, boys can learn empathy just like girls."

Where does our sense of empathy come from?
It's in our genes -- some people have it more than others8 (10.4%)
It's something we learn from those around us11 (14.3%)
It's a little of both -- nature AND nurture58 (75.3%)

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.