A recent study showed that adolescents are influenced by parents’ prejudices—toward immigrants, specifically, and concerning difference, in general. Behavioral research is famously unsuccessful in clearly demonstrating causality. Still, a strong correlation is valuable for insight and consideration. This research happened to be well constructed (consistent measures, valid data, accounting for confounding variables, etc.) Being intuitive that young adolescents tend to express similar attitudes to their parents’ toward others augments the findings.
The effect seems to shifts, though, in older adolescents, particularly if teenagers are in a setting that includes immigrant teens (e.g., public school). In this case, prejudice tends to decrease. Interesting were the lower scores for markers of empathy prevalent for those expressing greater prejudice. And empathy markers in adolescents were clearly correlated to the same trajectory as for their parents.
Now, it is important to note that while empathy is other-perspectival it is much more comprehensive than the put-yourself-in-her-shoes instruction we heard and tell our children. It is also “critical for maintaining an identity that honors one’s socio-cultural heritage.” To possess authentic empathy for another is not to lose oneself in the service of another. Rather, it is to notice and be aware of my own self, with all of the discomfort or hesitation I might initially carry when faced with another’s need. Only then can I recognize that discomfort for what it is and then let it go, free to see the one in need for who he or she is: a beautiful person created in the very image of God.
There are many factors that influence whether and how empathetic we grow to be. Indeed, another recent study showed a strong tendency for those who visited other countries to develop a broader perspective toward cultural rules they were initially shown to follow. Empathy can also be taught and developed by engaging in mindfulness spiritual practices in quiet isolation, as well as, with others—including our children. While writing this I am reminded to be more consistent with the time my son and I often take after school to strike the singing bowl and center on God’s presence. (Thank you, to those who read this for these opportunities to remind myself!)
We can learn to develop empathy and become better equipped to make things right in this world (righteousness and justice). How much more powerful the impact when we intentionally model and teach our children—with their beautifully plastic brains and storm of firing neurons!—to notice what is going on inside, and then notice the need of another who also bears God’s image. Truly, we will see with greater clarity the fullness of God’s kingdom on earth as heaven.
Breathe in God’s unconditional, unending love for you.
Breathe out the irritation of being interrupted by your child (or spouse, or cat…).
Breathe in the grace and peace that extends beyond anything you can comprehend.
Breathe out that same grace and peace over this beautiful person in your care.
You can read more on mindful parenting in, Leading Together: Mindfulness and the Gender Neutral Zone.