What Danish Parents Know About Teaching Empathy

Written by Katie Hintz-Zambrano
9:00 am
08/03/15

Photographed by James Kicinski-McCoy

We all want our kids to be happy. And happiness is something the Danes have supposedly figured out, with research consistently showing that residents of Denmark are among the happiest in the world. So, it’s not a huge surprise that an article we published on Danish parenting tips has proved to be one of our most-read. Due to this popularity, we decided to do a deep-dive into some of the bigger philosophies rooted in Danish culture with The Danish Way of Parenting authors Jessica Alexander and psychotherapist Iben Sandahl leading the way. Last month we discussed the power of play-based parenting, and this time around we’re talking to the authors about the Danes’ belief in the importance of teaching children the concept of empathy.

Tell us how you define empathy.
“Empathy is the ability to recognize another’s emotions or more simply put—being able to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. America is much more individual based. Being a winner and striving to be the best are very normal goals for us. This equates to success and I don’t think we really question it. It is just part of our culture. Winning means a lot. Perhaps one of the major differences between Denmark and America is that Danes value teamwork much more than striving to be a star. And with that, they actively teach empathy.”

How does practicing empathy connect to overall happiness?
“All the latest neurological research shows that humans get more happiness from cooperating with others than from winning alone. Scientists have discovered ‘the social brain,’ which lights up to show that we are driven by something beyond self-interest: We are driven towards social connectedness. Caring relationships are one of the biggest predictors of happiness, well above money. It used to be believed that humans were innately selfish, but that is simply not true. We are all wired for empathy from birth. We just have to learn how to connect the wires to make it work. Being able to better trust and understand others are keys to achieving more happiness. And kids can be taught this.”

How do Danish parents teach this?
“The Danes teach empathy in schools, which is quite special. Empathy is such a big concept and it is taught in so many different ways for different ages. Three examples would be language choice, letting children self-regulate, and reading a wide range of stories.”

Tell us about that first concept: Using language choice to teach empathy.
“The first thing that is crucial to remember when teaching empathy is that our children are mirroring us. The kind of language we use is so important. How do you describe others? Are you understanding or judgmental? Tolerant or shaming? These are all things children are copying. Talking badly about others in front of kids and saying things like ‘She is mean,’ ‘He is selfish,’ ‘She is so annoying’ is not empathic language because it isn’t recognizing the emotions behind the action—it’s labeling. In Denmark, you almost never hear parents talking negatively about other children in front of their children. They are always trying to find ways to get their children to understand another child’s behavior without a negative label. If you remember that all children are fundamentally good and there is a reason behind all behaviors, this helps us naturally find the good in others. This makes us feel better because it teaches ‘reframing’—another Danish Way concept that improves happiness. We can help our children find the reasons behind the labels ‘He is annoying? Do you think maybe he is hungry? Or could he be tired because he missed his nap? You know how it feels be to be hungry and tired, right?’ ‘She is mean? It sounds like she had a bad day at school. The other day you said she was sweet. She is actually sweet, right?’ Helping children understand the feelings behind behaviors and leading them to a kinder conclusion is teaching empathy. It operates on the same neural pathway as forgiveness and it fosters more trust, cooperation, and a much better sibling relationship if you have more than one child. And don’t forget that parents have to have empathy for themselves sometimes, too. Parenting is hard and we don’t always get it right and that’s ok. Being understanding and forgiving of ourselves makes us better at forgiving our children and others.”

Explain the concept of self-regulation.
“Before we can be good at recognizing the emotions of others, we have to be able to understand our own emotions. Parents sometimes tell children what they think they should or shouldn’t feel. They override them. If they are sad, angry, hungry, cold, or upset, some parents tell them ‘No, you aren’t,’ ‘Don’t be sad,’ ‘You have no reason to be angry,’ ‘You should be hungry, eat!’ Telling children how they should feel is not letting them learn to self-regulate their own feelings. As parents, we have to give our children trust so that they can learn about their own emotional boundaries. This builds a stronger sense of self, which is paramount to self-esteem down the road. When they are older they will be less afraid to say ‘no’ when their boundaries are pushed because they will trust themselves to make the right decision based on what they feel. This is such an important lesson to teach children. We can help them with the language use, but we need to trust them so they can trust themselves. Remember, there are no good or bad emotions. There are just emotions.”

Finally, what kind of stories can we read our children to help teach empathy?
“Read all kinds of stories to children, not only happy ones. Talking about difficult emotions in books can be a fantastic way to build empathy. Many Danish children’s books are shocking by American standards with the topics they cover, but studies have shown that reading about all emotions increases a child’s ability to empathize. The original Little Mermaid, which is a Danish story, doesn’t get the prince in the end, but rather dies of sadness and turns into sea foam. That opens up quite a different kind of discussion! But it is incredible how receptive children are. They want to talk about all kinds of things. It seems to be more difficult for adults sometimes than for children. Remember, they are mirroring our discomfort. If we talk about life’s peaks and valleys in a non-dramatic way, our children will be more resilient in the long run. Books are a great way to teach empathy.”

What do you guys think? Are you actively teaching empathy to your kids? Let us know in the comments.

For more Danish parenting advice, read our original article, our follow-up on the power of play, and scoop up The Danish Way Of Parenting: A Guide To Raising The Happiest Kids in the World. You can also visit Alexander’s website and Facebook page.

Leave a Comment

78 comments

Marilena

It does seem obvious and natural for us to teach children how to live with empathy towards others but it is much more complicated and difficult than the article suggests. When a friend in school is consistently being nasty due to being badly treated at home how does one go about that? Also when a child has an over eating issue is overweight and constantly feels hungry how do you deal with that without telling the child what they are actually feeling (provided you know) ? We need a little more information I think….

Kunika Puri Viegas

Thank you for the article. My husband and I truly believe this is the best way to nurture independent, confident and loving children. I will be reading all the previous and hopefully get all the future articles :)

Natalie Baginski

I cannot comment on Danish culture because I’ve never been to Denmark, but these ideas are very familiar. At our Montessori school in Washington D.C., we work very hard to model care and kindness, never put our opinions or values on the children, and to let them feel the way they feel without judgment. When toddler drama happens, we support them when they need it, let them see us showing care and concern over someone who was hurt or upset. They eat when they are hungry, rest when they are tired, play when they are playful. I find this article helpful and inspiring, I have shared it with our parents!

SUZETTE

Lovely concept, and so positive☺

Monica

Yeah, I am an American expat in Denmark and have a 3 year old, and I haven’t sent her to daycare or “kindergarten” which starts at 2 years and 10 months, precisely because I don’t really trust that their institutions are at all geared for dealing with fostering the children’s basic needs. “Happiest country” is a title I don’t really buy either. They have depressed people here, too, they Re just on happy pills, and Danes have low expectations and never try to stand out, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they answered that they were happy but had no clue what happy even was, beyond feeling safe with universal health care. How is happiness even measured?! Anyways, my decision to not send my daughter into these institutions has been taken pretty badly, specifically because women are meant to be in the work force and society is geared to not consider mothering actual work. There is a movement of mothers who are actively criticizing the status quo, and challenging the masculine ideal of being CIO or having it all. There is no option for part time work in Denmark, for example. Forward-thinking Danish feminist mothers point to Holland or Finland, whenever they want to change Denmark for the better or get it to start caring about the fate of Denmark’s children, but the bulk of kids are in overcrowded, undermanned daycares just so Mom can go back to work. I would argue that that is the beginning of a complete lack of empathy, actually. So, no, I wouldn’t be pointing to Denmark as some paradise.

Julia Sengupta

A very good article. Loved reading it. Hope we all start looking at things from the Danish perspective and make our planet a lovely place to live.

Tshila Simon Ravhuhali

# Showing empathy should be a priority in everyone life: I m really bleesed, As a mentor to many aspriring stars , I would like read more of your work!

Emma

The artical is a good catalyst for discussing how best to teach empathy, I predominantly lean towards the use of language as it is easily incorporated into daily interaction with all people/children that one comes into contact with. It is fundamental that we accept people are innately kind for us to be gentle and empathetic when assessing and addressing behavior. We can help children understand why they are feeling a certain way without telling them what they are feeling for example ‘you have been use to eating big meals, so it will take time for your body to adjust to a healthy portion size…we need you to adjust as your health problems are preventing you from playing with your friends…in the mean getting enough water each day and eating balanced meals will help reduce your hunger, let’s try it together’. The child who exhibits mean behavior because the home environment is challenging is much harder to tackle but teaching a child that they have a choice in how they respond is surely more beneficial then labeling the other child as cruel.

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Rosemary Wilson

I really enjoyed reading this article. I think that it’s a great way to teach children about empathy.

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