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Can We Help Our College Students Be More Empathetic?

Marybeth Bock, MPH

The universal default “want” of parenting seems to be that we just want our kids to be happy.

Somewhere along the way we may have shared this wish with our children, perhaps after one of them insinuated we might be pressuring them to be something they didn’t want to be, or to follow a path that we thought might be best for them.

“I don’t care what you end up doing. I just want you to be happy.”

But as our kids (and we ourselves) grow older, most of us come to realize that wanting to “just be happy” is an elusive pursuit.

Why? Because no one is happy all the time, no matter how rich or healthy or educated or fulfilled they are in life. It’s an impossible goal, and not even a worthy one, in my opinion.

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about life, contentment and career goals in our house. With two young adults who have spent the last several months applying for post-undergrad educational opportunities, we’ve had many discussions about the problems that Generation Z faces, what they consider their core values to be, what brings them satisfaction or makes them happy, and how they will go about making a difference in the world.

All of these varying essay-type issues that have been swirling around in our minds have made me firmly realize that I’ve never been one of the parents who wants my kids to “just be happy” when they grow up.

If I had to choose one single attribute that I hope they are and will continue to grow into, it would be empathetic. I know I’m not the only one who feels like empathy is somewhat lacking in our country today. Or that many of the “real” adults — the people our teens and young adults are supposed to be looking up to — aren’t setting the best examples when it comes to showing empathy.

There Are Two Types of Empathy

According to Dr. Marcia Eckerd, PhD, a clinical psychologist specializing in neurodiversity and social skills, there are at least two kinds of empathy. “Cognitive empathy is seeing the perspective of someone else; emotional empathy is having feelings for the feelings of someone else. They don’t necessarily go together.”

Dr. Eckerd explains, “It may be that many people don’t have cognitive empathy for people whose life experience is fundamentally different from their own, whether this difference is neurotype, racial, ethnic, religious, cultural, gender -related, or some other kind of difference.”

Why it’s Harder than Ever to Be Empathetic

Today’s technology has made it much too easy to primarily interact with people who see things the way we do. We are selectively exposed to news outlets, social media “friends” and entertainment based on our own Likes.

In essence, we can silo ourselves off from whatever we don’t want to see, hear or contemplate, if it goes against our personal beliefs and experiences.

It takes real effort to seek out information that doesn’t align with our view of the world. And the pandemic has not made this easier, as we’ve all been distancing and avoiding interacting with “strangers” who might be fundamentally different than we are.

According to Psychology Today, “Humans begin to show signs of empathy in infancy and the trait develops steadily through childhood and adolescence. Still, most people are likely to feel greater empathy for people like themselves and may feel less empathy for those outside their family, community, ethnicity, or race.”

By the time our kids are in college, we may see a great deal of maturity in them, but their brains and their abilities to be empathic are still evolving. Neuroscientists largely agree that the human brain isn’t fully developed until at least the mid-20s.

Can Parents Play a Role in Encouraging More Empathy?

How can we help our teens and young adults develop greater empathy? Is it possible to play a part in getting them to recognize, understand and share deeply in the thoughts and feelings of other people?

Here are some steps to consider.

  1. Encourage your student to spend more time with people who don’t look like them, who come from vastly different backgrounds, and who disagree with them on big issues. Participating in campus clubs is an easy way for college students to have deeper interactions with people from different backgrounds and experiences. Most schools have plenty to choose from and are still holding virtual club meetings even if in-person classes are not happening.
  2. And toward this purpose, social media can actually be helpful, if students seek to follow others with different life experiences, particularly ones who make a point to educate others about their perspective and viewpoints. Finding people and accounts can be as simple as searching tags like #diversity, #inclusion, #culturalcompetence and #socialjustice.
  3. Suggest that your student read novels if they are not already in the habit of doing so. Reading fictional accounts of people’s lives can help get us into the minds of others, often in ways that affect us more deeply than non-fiction accounts do.
  4. If you feel like you may be the last person your student wants to take suggestions from when it comes to being more empathetic, it’s important to remember that our actions speak loudly. We can make it a point to be empathetic when we are around our young adults. We can model kindness and compassionate action for friends, neighbors and extended family members who may have quite different political, religious and philosophical leanings than we have. We can also talk about feeling uncomfortable yet remaining respectful and open to hearing others’ viewpoints.

I hope my kids don’t spend too much of their lives seeking happiness. I hope they spend time gaining understanding through curiosity and discussion of other people’s lived experiences. I hope they seek out community with people of differing perspectives, and remain committed to hearing all voices, not just those who agree with them.

Because happiness is a by-product of shared connection, cooperation and genuine relationships.

Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adult students and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. Marybeth has a bachelor's degree in psychology from UCLA and a master's in public health from San Jose State University. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing. You can find her work on multiple parenting sites and in two books.

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