Not enough publicity is given to the way in which the feelings of sympathy and empathy in children are aroused by, or are reinforced by, the sports world, especially in team sports. Certainly a great deal of attention is focused on stories of the way in which children hurt each other in sporting competitions, and their apparent willingness to inflict emotional or physical pain or both.
But is capitalizing on the opportunity to hurt others really a common outcome of team sports? Or is the opposite true? Do children experience situations that help them understand and sympathize with others?
There is a difference between sympathy and empathy even though people often use those words interchangeably. Sympathy is the feeling of concern for someone else; empathy is experiencing the same or a similar emotion to what anther person is feeling. When you feel sympathy, you are not feeling the same emotion, but remembering what it is like from your own experiences or imagining what the feeling would be like.
How Can Sympathy and Empathy Benefit Society?
Trying to establish how these compelling emotions are triggered or fostered are important studies for psychologists and neurobiologists as they seek ways that we can help each other and society, in general, to become more altruistic, and more compassionate and helpful to others.
It has been established that very young children notice and, in many cases, react with sympathy to another person’s expressions of unhappiness – another child or an adult who is crying, screaming, pleading – and attempt to comfort or show concern for the child or adult who is in distress. It seems pretty obvious that this sensitive reaction is present in many children and, if harnessed, can become a part of a child’s personal morality and this trait can benefit all of society through the child’s kindness and acts of charity, both as a child and an adult.
Do You Help Foster These Emotions in Children?
Yes, chances are, you probably do encourage these emotions in children. Most parents and coaches – often parents themselves – are very concerned about teaching children to be kind, to take turns, to try hard, to help others, to play fair. It’s usually managed by the adults suggesting that the child imagine what it feels like to have their feelings hurt, to feel physical pain, to lose a turn, or to be a victim, often reminding the child of an incident in their own past. We understand instinctively, without formal training, that this effort will help sensitize a child to another’s feelings, both emotional and physical. Does it really work?
Studies show that, yes, it helps, just as we know children who are abused become abusers; children who are bullied become bullies; children who are shown kindness become more kind: “What goes around, comes around.”
It’s because we want and expect these teaching to take place that we notice and are upset by any sign that they are not, which is why we are so horrified by the stories of unfair play, deliberate hurt inflicted, name calling, and rudeness. The sports world, particularly team sports, becomes a platform for performances of the good, the bad, and the ugly, and we desperately want the “good” for our children.
How Does This Teaching Take Place?
Children learn from example. In Something’s Missing, it is Chris’s father who teaches Chris how to respond to the goalie who blames himself whenever a goal is scored, and why and how to offer encouragement as a teammate. Later in the story, the goalie and other children on the team support Chris in exactly the same way. They feel sympathy or empathy and they reach out to him in a way that he understands, and it is all he needs to cement his love of playing a team sport.
Reading the sports mystery Something’s Missing is not only fun for children, it helps remind children to play with honor and to honor their teammates by supporting them. One of my goals in writing books for children is to encourage feelings of empathy and sympathy. The whole world wins.
Something’s Missing is for sale in paperback at this link to Amazon.com, or by clicking on this Amazon.ca link, and at Barnes and Noble, and independent bookstores. If your child enjoys e-book reading, watch for the Kindle version, coming soon.
Creative Commons Attribution: Permission is granted to repost this article in its entirety with credit to Maureen Grenier and a clickable link back to this page.