the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
What the world needs now…is empathy. Information flies willy nilly every second of every day, tabloids scream the latest personal information speculated by celebrity reporters. A lack of empathy is something that is seemingly so apparent, we don’t even acknowledge its absence.
Empathy is one of the attributes that separates us from the wild. A lion doesn’t choose its prey based on whether or not the gazelle had a good day at work or is struggling in a relationship. Empathy is one skill that we’d like to think is natural, and while this is probably partly true, it is fair to say that empathy is something that also needs to be exercised; both actively, as in showing & receiving empathy, and passively, as in witnessing empathy.
Bullying, something constantly on the radar now, while stemming from many issues, can also be attributed to a lack of empathy, an inability to allow an awareness of how we would feel in the victim’s role to govern our actions.
How do children practice empathy? Passively it is something they witness, from parents and other adults in their various environments, or when one child in their class includes another child who may have been left out. Actively it is something they exercise in conflict, guided by a parent perhaps or it is something that is openly talked about at home in times of crisis or whenever the opportunity arrives.
Performing arts, acting specifically, requires the building of empathy skills. Understanding a character’s choices based on their actions, reactions, their past, the events they cause, the events they are victim to and why is how we bring words on a page to life on a stage. Trying to create emotionally accurate and believable characters requires an ability to relate to the character’s situation, either by paralleling a similar experience in our own lives; or, by piecing together experiences that might be vastly different from our characters situation but still connects us emotionally to their plight.
When we ask our acting students to think about how they would feel if a confrontational action was inflicted upon them, or how they would react in a similar situation, we are exercising their empathy muscles. We hope that these practice sessions, during rehearsals, will be relevant in their every day lives when opportunities to exercise empathy present themselves. Equipping our future generations with this ability, is one of the only ways our families, communities, and ultimately our world, will ever experience harmonious living.
This link outlines further how even attending theatre can be an engaging opportunity to witness empathy.
*Side note* If you plan on taking your child to the theatre, I strongly urge you to engage them in conversation about the show during intermission and afterward. Too often the electronics are switched back on and potential moments for communication with your child are missed. Engage them in conversation about what they are witnessing!
This article outlines further benefits of exposing children to theatre early on.
By: Stefanie Swinnard for Kids New West
Find Stefanie at The Stage New West, a performing arts studio for children and youth.