In my understanding, Buddhism teaches that we should be thankful for exactly the things we have (not to desire more/less) but to trust in the unfolding of our life.
In passing, I'm not entirely sure that's an accurate summary -- but perhaps that's a separate topic.
I was lucky enough to be born into a productive family and am living a mostly positive life, etc.
As mentioned in another answer, it's worth identifying the brahma-viharas
These four attitudes are said to be excellent or sublime because they are the right or ideal way of conduct towards living beings (sattesu samma patipatti).
I guess what im asking is what place does sympathy/empathy or even being grateful have in Buddhism
I think they're instrumental in not hurting yourself -- the converse, e.g. "craving for things you can't have, or craving to keep things you can't keep", is a cause of suffering.
They're also instrumental in not hurting others.
I can see how that narrative would work for me because i have the things i want, but for people who aren't as fortunate, how do you reconcile that in theory?
What if someone in your family, a friend, a child, a spouse, were homeless or a drug addict?
Maybe you'd want to try to help, to act on that (and in practice to do that you might need to change yourself in some way).
Buddhism teaches we shouldn't want more than what has been given to us
Buddhism also teaches "generosity" and "giving" as virtues.
It also teaches healthy and appropriate social relationships -- towards friends and family, employers and employees and teachers.
And it isn't only a matter of passive acceptance -- states like viriya (energy, strength, effort) are identified as instrumental or virtuous -- conversely there are kilesas
... mental states that cloud the mind and manifest in unwholesome actions ... include states of mind such as anxiety, fear, anger, jealousy, desire, depression, etc. Contemporary translators use a variety of English words to translate the term ... such as: afflictions, defilements, destructive emotions, disturbing emotions, negative emotions, mind poisons, neurosis etc.
How to teach sympathy/empathy in Buddhism?
Right, well -- for a five-year old ...
I don't want to say it's difficult or impossible to teach, but it might be an ongoing process (not a learn-it-once-and-you're-done kind of lesson, like learning to tie your shoes or whatever). For example I also associate it with bodhicitta; and the principle or final (i.e. the last remaining) motive of the Buddha, his motive for teaching.
One aspect of it, that maybe everyone should know, is "harmlessness" -- sometimes called the silver rule in English, or the "negative" formulation of the Golden Rule
The maxim may appear as a positive or negative injunction governing conduct:
- Treat others as you would like others to treat you (positive or directive form)
- Do not treat others in ways that you would not like to be treated (negative or prohibitive form)
- What you wish upon others, you wish upon yourself (empathetic or responsive form)
Some of the Buddhist texts explicitly use this negative formulation -- for example from the Dhammapada:
- All are afraid of the stick,
all fear death.
Putting oneself in another's place,
one should not beat or kill others.
Another aspect is, beware of looking down on people, of seeing others as inferior.
In Buddhist doctrine, "compassion" is explicitly not the same as "pity" -- see What is the difference between 'compassion' and 'pity'?
See also The Buddha's Teaching on Unselfish Joy:
Mudita will also vitalize and ennoble charitable and social work. While compassion (karuna) is, or should be, the inspiration for it, unselfish joy should be its boon companion. Mudita will prevent compassionate action from being marred by a condescending and patronizing attitude which often repels or hurts the recipient. Also, when active compassion and unselfish joy go together, it will be less likely that works of service turn into dead routine performed indifferently. Indifference, listlessness, boredom (all nuances of the Pali term arati) are said to be the 'distant enemies' of mudita. They can be vanquished by an alliance of compassion and unselfish joy.
In him who gives and helps, the joy he finds in such action will enhance the blessings imparted by these wholesome deeds: unselfishness will become more and more natural to him, and such ethical unselfishness will help him towards a better appreciation and the final realization of the Buddha's central doctrine of No-self (anatta). He will also find it confirmed that he who is joyful in his heart will gain easier the serenity of a concentrated mind. These are, indeed, great blessings which the cultivation of joy with others' happiness can bestow!
The habit of comparing people and finding them different is identified as a cause of conflict:
Māna is a Buddhist term that may be translated as "pride", "arrogance", or "conceit". It is defined as an inflated mind that makes whatever is suitable, such as wealth or learning, to be the foundation of pride. It creates the basis for disrespecting others and for the occurrence of suffering.
See also How are 'conceit' and 'identity-view' not the same?
How does a child learn anything?
I don't know of any detailed Buddhist doctrine on that subject (the doctrine I have comes from studying Early childhood education in Ontario and Montessori education).
I expect that it will be by "modelling" (i.e. exemplifying, providing or being an example of) the behaviours you might want them to learn.