When my children were toddlers, I wanted them to be empathetic and compassionate – to be able to see the world through others’ eyes and to turn that ability into action if help was needed.
I wanted to raise the anti-bully!
And not only did I want an anti-bully, I wanted to raise kids who stood up for the bullied, and also understood the plight of the bully.
I knew I wanted to raise empathetic and compassionate kids; I just didn’t know how to do it.
As it happens, life threw me a curve ball when my kids were five and six years old, ensuring that they would learn empathy right in their own living room.
I had what was supposed to be routine surgery. Fast-forward two months, a host of complications, a few ER visits, and a second surgery later, and I emerged as this: a woman with a painful disability caused by permanent muscle, nerve, and organ damage.
Suddenly, I had to learn to keep myself alive while taking care of my children and managing the day-to-day changes in my life. In those first hectic months, I couldn’t focus on empathy, couldn’t actively try to raise two crusaders for kindness.
It turns out that my children did not forget. Faced with a parent who struggled every day with simple tasks, my children watched and learned.
They learned when they could help. And when to step back. And when to bring me one of their stuffed animals and a hug.
They learned how to walk the tightrope of being sympathetic without being overwhelmed, something that can be hard for children and adults alike.
By watching me struggle, they learned empathy and compassion.
While our situation was unique, what I learned can help you teach your own children how to build empathy.
What Is Empathy?
While it is generally seen as one emotion or characteristic, empathy actually has three main components, says Gwen Dewar, PhD and author of the article Teaching Empathy: Evidence-based Tips for Fostering Empathy in Children. They are: emotional sharing, empathetic concern, and perspective taking.
Using each of these components in relationships helps children (and adults) act with compassion, kindness, and an ethical base.
Emotional Sharing: This happens when children feel distress or discomfort from watching what others are experiencing. It helps other people feel someone else’s pain and is a necessary component of empathy.
But sometimes emotional sharing can be overwhelming. Some people can be “emotional sponges” and have difficulty separating their own discomfort from that of another person. For example, when I was first recovering, my daughter would often cry when she saw me in pain, a pitfall of emotional sharing.
Empathetic Concern: Dewar describes this as “the motivation to care for individuals who are vulnerable or distressed.” This is the beginning of taking action to help when needed.
While it might come naturally to some children, it can also be taught. In our case, my children wanted to help me; I was their mom, after all. We built on this concern with discussions about caring for people outside our own family, our own neighborhood or our own country.
Perspective Taking: This is a child’s ability to step into another person’s shoes, to consider an action from another point of view. This is really the backbone of empathy.
If your child learns to look at the world from another person’s perspective, it allows for compassion, concern and action for another individual.
In our case, my children began to see the world through my eyes while watching my recovery.
So how do you grow these traits in your children? How do we teach them to practice emotional sharing, empathetic concern, and perspective taking in small moments in their daily lives?
Begin at Home
As parents, we often try to shield our kids from discomfort or difficulty. To build empathy, we need to try doing the opposite. Let your children see you work through difficult emotions or conflict.
It may feel counter-intuitive, but kids learn from watching us. Seeing the steps we take to find a solution to an emotional problem can teach them how to find their own solutions.
By working through conflict (either with them or our own) and showing them that emotional discomfort is a part of life, our children can see components of empathy in our own lives.
Help Kids Develop A Moral Compass or Moral Identity
It’s also important to begin discussions about empathetic behavior and the reasons behind it at home. Rather than just saying “be nice,” or praising behavior, talk about why you choose to act the way you do. Discuss the moral code and value system that your family chooses to live by.
In fact, the reason behind the action is the most important part. A study in Child Development by Bryan, Master and Walton found that children were more likely to help across four tasks if they were “being a helper” (an identity) versus “helping” (an action).
Multiple other studies have found that praise and reward alone actually decrease helpful behavior in older children.
To foster empathy as a life-long character trait, it’s important for children to develop a moral identity that includes being someone who helps others.
Read Books and Tell Stories
The best literature allows us to step into the world the book creates and experience the life of a character. Reading books and telling stories help children learn empathy, as they feel happy or sad or scared for a character.
In fact, research has shown that reading books like Harry Potter “can train you in social perception and understanding other peoples’ experience of the world.”
You can further this growth by talking with your son or daughter about the characters and situations that arise in books. Why did a character react like that? What were they feeling at the time? What would you have done, and why?
Books also allow children to be one step removed from a character’s pain or problems, which can cause less distress than, say, seeing an actual friend or family member fight a dragon. This breathing room can allow kids space to consider what actions they would take to help, actions they can apply later to a real-life problem.
Teach Kids About Emotion and Help Them Regulate Emotion
Learning to regulate emotion is a huge step. Feeling uncomfortable emotions like sadness or anger about a situation can be a barrier to practicing empathy. Big emotions, especially pain or anger, can be scary and kids may cry or hide or try and ignore the situation.
Until they are more comfortable, developing empathy is difficult. Dewar notes that studies show that people with increased empathy actually register less stress themselves when exposed to others in distress. Gradual exposure to negative emotions over time will help, as will talking about emotions when everyone is calm.
It’s also important to give kids tools to work through those emotions. As part of the Making Caring Common Project, authors Richard Weissbourd and Stephanie Jones of the Harvard Graduate School of Education suggest identifying feelings, talking though conflicts, and teaching children breath control techniques to help them self-regulate and manage emotions.
Make Your Empathy Circle Bigger
It’s easy to have empathy for your own family and friends. We know them and love them! Research through Harvard’s program shows that children also have empathy for people they perceive as like them.
But it’s harder for children to feel empathy and compassion for those they consider strangers or who are outside their immediate empathy circle.
As parents, our job is to expand that circle. While part of that occurs through stories and books, it’s also important to model respect for other people and cultures and talk about situations outside of your child’s own experience.
Exposure to people from other backgrounds, living situations and values is key. Traveling is great for this! People lack empathy when they fail to see the commonalities among all of us, which (per Dewar) can be predictive of prejudice.
Give Opportunities for Kids to Practice Empathy in School
Yes, learning about empathy begins at home, and parents are the first teachers, but kids can also learn empathy at school. Kids spend their days in the school hallways and that provides a place to consider how another student feels as well as opportunities to work together.
Consider Denmark: From the age of six to sixteen, children in Danish schools practice “Klassen Time.” Once a week, the class comes together to discuss problems and work together to find solutions. There’s even a cake, one that students take turns baking each week!
As a people, Danes rank high in both empathy and happiness, which makes sense if you consider that Danish children are given weekly opportunities to talk about feelings and encouraged to problem-solve together.
Here in the United States, schools can and do work to foster empathy through buddy benches, programs teaching kindness and peer mediation programs. The more opportunities children have to build and practice component skills, the more likely they are to develop empathy over time.
How Is Empathy Different in Today’s Kids?
As parents, we need to focus on building empathy in our children, and we need to start now. Unfortunately, college students today show a 40 percent drop in empathy, when compared to students in the 1980s and 1990s, with the biggest drop coming after the year 2000. Researchers suggest increased exposure to media, the rise of social media and a hyper-competitive atmosphere (think reality shows) may contribute to the change.
As parents, we can help reverse this trend and make the world a little kinder in the process. We can focus on teaching our children how to be thoughtful, to be caring, to be empathetic.
In my own house, raising empathetic and compassionate kids was my long-term goal. I expected to teach them that other people need our support; instead, I learned that empathy, very literally, starts at home.
Honestly, I wouldn’t wish our journey on anybody else. But that’s the point of empathy, isn’t it? It’s learning to walk down someone else’s path with them, and to realize that another person deserves our support, compassion, love, and help for a myriad of different reasons – some similar and some different from our own. This is the lesson that I hope my children carry through their own lives.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Talk to your children about your family values. This will help them start to develop their own moral identity; one that will foster an attitude of caring for others.
What are 2 books on your shelf that focus on empathy and feature a diverse cast of characters right now that you can read with them?
Do you have a neighbor that might need a little extra help shoveling snow this winter?
Can your child support a charity for his or her birthday? Kid-friendly ideas include asking for toy donations to a children’s hospital or suggesting guests bring items for a local food bank.
Look for local food, coat, or toy drives, and donate to them if you are able. Because kids begin by feeling empathy for others who are “like them,” this is a good building block. It helps children recognize need in their own community, and among other children their own age.
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
In the longer term, think about different ways you can introduce your children to a diverse group of people, including different cultures and ways of life.
Travel if you can, or take journeys through books and movies if you need to stay closer to home.
After a scary or sad day, talk about those emotions and coach your children through ways to deal with difficult situations when they arise. This is easier to do when everyone in the family is calm.
If your school doesn’t have a program designed to increase empathy, talk to the school counselor or principal about implementing one.