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How to teach teens empathy

It’s easy, I think, for teens to pity people, to feel sorry for someone else. It’s much harder for teens to cultivate and develop empathy, the ability to feel and understand another person’s experience. This is true, I’m afraid, even for church kids.

Pity doesn’t require anything more than a passing glance; Empathy demands a relationship and an opportunity to actually get to know another person.

One of the best ways that we can get to know another person is by seeing where they live.

Unfortunately, in today’s society, it’s no longer the norm for people to see each other’s houses, let alone go inside of them. Just the other day I was talking with a friend who commented how abnormal it is for people to have their children’s birthday parties in their homes; How they’re always held elsewhere. The same is true for high school teens, who often connect with their friends away from home, at school or through extracurricular activities. Even on the weekends, teens often hang out with each other outside the home – at the mall, the movies, a park, or a restaurant.

Knowing this, one of the ways I teach teens empathy is by creating opportunities for them to see where their peers live.

To do this, every fall, my student leaders deliver survival kits to our incoming freshmen. These survival kits include items related to many ministry events throughout the year and serve as a valuable way of welcoming teens into our ministry.

Beyond that, though, because my student leaders deliver these survival kits to people’s homes, they get to see where they live – at least from the outside. Doing so shows student leaders that teens in our ministry come from a variety of backgrounds. They live in different communities in different types of houses – some huge and some very small. They live in sprawling lots and cramped apartments. Some live blocks from the church; Others live miles away and have to pass several other churches before arriving at ours.

These observations about where people live help teens begin to make sense of one another’s stories. Take, for example, a kid we’ll call Shelly. Shelly lives about 20 minutes from church in no traffic. She’s from one of the family’s in our ministry who lives furthest away from our church, in an entirely different neighborhood that feeds into an entirely different school. Having delivered her survival kit, student leaders now understand how difficult it is for Shelly to get to our weeknight youth ministry events. In driving the route from her house to our church, they also passed her high school – one that none of them attend. As a result, they now know that when Shelly is around, they need to go out of their way to welcome her and connect her to other students because unlike most people in our ministry, she doesn’t know others from school.

Or take another teen we’ll call Andrew. Andrew’s family of five lives in a small apartment in a crowded neighborhood frequently patrolled by the police. Andrew attends every event our ministry has – as long as it’s held at our church and is free of charge. After delivering his survival kit, a student leader comments, “I wonder if the reason Andrew never comes to any event that costs money is because he can’t afford it.” Having realized this, student leaders opt to replace a costly event with a free one so that Andrew can attend.

In both Andrew and Shelly’s case, pity would cause teens to ignore or feel sorry for them (even while still ostracizing them for being different). In contrast, empathy challenges teens to dig beneath the labels they might otherwise give teens like Andrew and Shelly, learn more about their stories, and find ways to genuinely welcome them into our ministries.

By | 2017-01-26T11:26:02+00:00 September 9th, 2015|Uncategorized|0 Comments

About the Author:

Jen serves as the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus and the corresponding student devotional, The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel). She's currently writing her third book, Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abindgon Press). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. When not doing ministry, she and her husband Doug can be found hiking, backpacking, and traveling with their toddler, Hope.

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