Teaching children empathy can come across as something impossible to do, especially if you think of it as something natural people are born with. Indeed, there’s a basic tendency to respond to other people’s needs that children have from birth. According to Nancy Eisenberg, Arizona State University psychologist, in their first year of life, a baby will often look upset when someone else falls or cries. Then in the second year, the baby will start showing signs of comforting another person in pain by patting them on the head. Admittedly, this isn’t the full range of empathy, but it’s a start and your job as a parent is to nurture it. That begins with learning how to teach empathy yourself.
Empathy as an umbrella term has to do with at least three processes. The first is to feel what another person is feeling. The second is putting oneself in another person’s shoes to see what they’re thinking or feeling. The third is the willingness to help relieve another person’s pain. What these three processes have in common is that they require recognizing when another person is in distress. This emphasizes that empathy is a transferable skill.
Benefits of Raising Empathetic Children
Empathy has extensive and long-lasting benefits for your child and society at large. Below are some benefits of teaching empathy to your child.
- Fosters the capacity for change. Societal systems keep evolving through history. That evolution has been driven by change instigated by individuals or groups of people who recognized that some part of the system is either unfair or downright harmful. This ability to recognize what needs to change and having the desire to change it are both processes of empathy. Autumn Williams, who works with Ashoka, an international network of social entrepreneurs that have recently devoted to building empathy in education, believes that empathy plays a crucial role in creating positive change and solving deep-rooted systemic problems. “We’ve recognized empathy as integral to their change-making,” Williams says. “That’s why empathy must be as essential as math and literacy. We need a world full of individuals that have the ability to cultivate change where it’s needed, and to recognize they have the ability to do so.”
- Better mental health. Empathetic children interact with others better. This interaction helps a person connect to other people and the larger community. They have a positive attitude toward others, and therefore more open to sharing their experiences and emotions. This leads to better mental health.
- Success in academic and career pursuits. There are many factors responsible for academic and career success. Empathy is one of those factors and a very important one. This is because empathy promotes communication, self-confidence, sharing, and corporation.
A study led by Damon E Jones, Research Assistant Professor of Health and Human Development Pennsylvania State University, followed over 750 people for 20 years. The study found that those who were able to share and help other children in kindergarten were more likely to graduate from high school and have full-time jobs. Evidence of empathy is a key soft skill looked for by employers.
How to Teach Empathy to a Child
Explaining empathy to a child is a good place to start. It involves letting the child understand that other people have feelings and those feelings need to be considered. Find out how to teach children empathy below.
- Help them develop strong self-regulation skills. Empathy requires putting yourself in another person’s shoes and feeling their pain. This can be very unpleasant in many cases. Your child’s mechanism for self-preservation can cause them to recoil or shrink away, which can reduce them to a spectator. If your child is to be a helper, they need to have strong self-regulation skills to deal with that impulse to recoil. For that to happen, your child needs to feel secure, and that’s something that comes with the amount of emotional and physical support you provide. Here we have and detailed article on developing social skills in children.
- Highlight their similarities with others. People tend to empathize more when there’s a bit of familiarity, some common grounds they share with others. Your child has the same tendency. You can utilize this to boost empathy by seeking opportunities to make your child aware of their similarities with other people. What this does is to further humanize those in distress.
- Make a habit of putting them in an empathetic mode. Most people can empathize, but they don’t always use it. This happens because people are often caught up in the stress of their own lives. To encourage your child to practice more empathy, ask them to reflect on what the other person is feeling when the opportunity presents itself. To test this, Jellie Sierksma, Assistant Professor at the Department of Experimental and Applied Psychology at the VU Amsterdam, experimented with her colleagues. They asked two groups of more than 400 Dutch children if they’d help out a classmate with her sweeping duties so she can go home to her sick mother. Those who were asked to consider the classmate as a friend said they would help her. While those who were asked not to see the classmate as a friend said they would not. But when the researchers asked both groups to pause and think about the classmate and how sad she was likely to be, they all said they would help.
- Encourage them to copy facial expressions. Encouraging your child to copy facial expressions helps them associate themself with what that person is feeling, thereby boosting their empathic powers. When your child imitates someone’s facial expression, there are changes in the brain activities that correspond with the mirrored emotion.
- Be an empathy model yourself. As a parent, modeling empathy to your child involves being empathetic in your dealings with other people. But in this case, it goes a bit farther than that. You should seek to model it using real-life situations that require an empathetic response. When your child offends another child, invite them to think about how the other child is feeling instead of demanding that they apologize. Then ask them how they think they can make the other child feel better. This way, you are getting your child to participate in the process.
Empathy Through Charity: Different Ways for Children to Be Involved
One of the processes of empathy involves putting others before yourself. Through charity, your child can remain committed to doing something for others. Below are practical ways for your child to be involved in charity. Obviously, volunteer work is good, but others are below may also be of interest.
- A letter to a pen pal who needs a friend.
- Taking care of the planet through works like clearing paths or planting trees.
- Donating things they’ve outgrown.
- Participating in sponsored walks and runs to raise money to support other children.
- Helping out sick or elderly neighbors with housework.
- Donating their pocket money to buy books for other children who have never owned a book before.
- Joining a litter-picking group that helps with keeping the neighborhood clean.
- Donate to a food bank.
- Feed a pet in the local pet shelter.
- Create bird feeders to draw wildlife.
- Arrange a beach clean.
- Create handmade cards for children in the hospital.
- Sending a thank you note to a community hero.
- Raising awareness about an issue in the community.
- Using personal skills to create something to cheer up others in need.
Final Thoughts on Teaching Children Empathy
Parents who have noticed an empathy deficit in their older children can still do something about it. “It’s never too late to learn to empathize,” says Tina Malti, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto and author of a 2016 report looking at school-based interventions to promote empathy in children. “Though our perspective-taking develops dramatically in the early stages of life—it helps mold who we are as adults—we’re always malleable.”