Empathy can be defined in many ways. In today’s world, empathy is expressed in relation to circumstances. Locally, an individual may or may not express empathy for another individual. Nationally, a government may display empathy for its citizens. Globally, it becomes manifest when a person or society is able to perceive and respect cultures other than one’s own.
What connection is there between empathy and gifted parenting? Global empathy needs to be fostered in gifted children because these children have the potential of becoming academic, corporate and governmental world leaders. It will be incumbent upon them to display empathy toward the cultures with which they interact. It is in fact a much sought after quality in persons who function in high-level positions. We need look no further than the recent disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The inability of BP’s corporate leaders to assess the public’s outrage surrounding the oil leak and then deal with it was stunning. The CEO displayed an incredible lack of empathy. After being relieved of his public duties, he returned home to watch a yacht race while thousands of people were watching their livelihoods from the oceans disappear!
All parents want their children to be happy and find fulfillment in life. Parents of gifted children are no different. Professional achievements may be easy for the gifted child, but empathizing with others often proves more difficult and sometimes unattainable. These children are often seen as being able to quickly know how others feel about them, but that does not always translate into empathy for the other person. Gifted individuals may show deep concern for ‘issues’ such as global warming or the plight of endangered species, but in relation to themselves.
Being able to demonstrate empathy can bear many fruits for a gifted child. Friendship begins with empathy. Interpersonal relationships can be difficult for gifted children. They often fail to see shared traits or interests with other children their age. They themselves can feel misunderstood by their peers. Empathy bridges the gap between gifted and others. Empathy is both a precedent as well as antecedent to compassion (Hein). When a child feels compassion for someone else, he or she may begin to discover similarities. This eventually forms the foundation of friendship.
So how does one ‘teach’ empathy? You must first understand its meaning. Simon Baron-Cohen describes empathy as “understanding the other’s feelings and the ability to take their perspective” as well as the observer being able to make the “appropriate emotional response to another person’s emotional state.” (Baron-Cohen, The Essential Difference, 2003). The best way to teach empathy is by modeling it. As mentioned above, gifted children are keen observers of other people’s emotions and are able to grasp the meaning of these emotions at a very early age. Parents can guide these young minds to see the importance of responding to these emotions in a positive way, thus enhancing their relationships with others and the quality of their own lives.
The world as a global society becomes more apparent everyday. The role of gifted individuals transcends national boundaries and their leadership will prove pivotal in the direction taken in worldwide relationships. Parenting becomes more of a challenge with these higher stakes but the rewards are fantastic! A world in which its leaders can display effective empathy will be a world of peace and prosperity.