Empathy involves perceiving and relating to another person’s feelings, a social skill. Taking it a step further, it includes building a connection with that person. Children aren’t known for their ability to be empathetic, but it is something they can learn. If you don’t know how to teach your child empathy, we have some tips to help you get started.
To teach your children empathy, lead by example and start when they are very young. When they’re hurting, make an effort to acknowledge their feelings and try to comfort them. As they grow older, you’ll catch them acting the same way toward others.
Praise your children when you find them acting with kindness or when they reach out to someone who needs special attention. It is important that children understand what they did that garnered this reaction. Be sure to specify; for example, “Thank you so much for hugging and helping your sister when she fell down. I’m proud of you for caring for her.”
Talk about feelings with your children rather than keeping them to yourself. Explain that when they misbehave or won’t play with each other, it makes you sad. By being vocal about your feelings the children will be more likely to express theirs, as well. Be sure to listen to what they have to say because it demonstrates that:
- Their feelings are valid
- Their feelings have worth
- You care about their feelings
- You are interested in what they have to say
Encourage your children to help others by serving them. Obviously very small children aren’t able to help in a soup kitchen, but they can choose toys to give to others. Then, do your best to let your child see the results of their gift. For instance, if your child has too many stuffed animals and you would like to give some away, see if you can take them to a children’s hospital and give them directly to the children. Your child will be able to see the joy in the recipient’s face and experience the great feeling it can cause.
Guiding children to help others while they’re young will teach them empathy and encourage them to continue to volunteer or be generous with their time, possessions and feelings as they grow older.
Train your child to be polite and use good manners. Explain to your child, in terms they can understand, how being polite shows respect and care for others. Saying “please” and “thank you” are an easy place to begin. Once your child has mastered this aspect of being polite, you can move on to other manners which you feel are important for your child to learn.
Expect your children to be empathetic. Even though girls are thought to express empathy more often than boys, that doesn’t mean boys can’t or shouldn’t learn empathy, too. In fact, if we teach and expect the same from both genders, they can both learn to show empathy. One prime example of this can be seen with fathers and male role models. Consider how they get their points across much easier when they show empathy and compassion to someone.
Role play to get your meaning across. If your child doesn’t understand what you’re trying to teach them, try role playing with them. You can ask them, “How would you feel if Timmy took your favorite toy from you?” You can also find a book which has characters showing empathy, like Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. There are many others you can choose from as well. Ask your local librarian if they have age-appropriate books to recommend.
As a parent, you want your children to show empathy for other children including their siblings. Using these tips, you’ll see how it is possible to teach your child empathy. Once they learn to show empathy, be sure to commend them for using it and let them know how proud you are for their doing so.