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Expert Advice

Share the gift of empathy with your kids

At its best, the holiday season brings out the spirit of generosity. We see it in toy drives for disadvantaged kids, in holiday dinners for less-fortunate families, and in the bell ringers collecting change at the grocery store. In addition to making things a bit brighter for others—which helps us feel good in turn—this season of doing good gives us a way to teach children a lesson in caring for others. While the holidays are a great time to start, the tips below can carry the spirit of empathy and compassion forward through the year.

It helps children when they learn to care about others

Empathy is the ability to understand how another person is feeling. It nurtures kind and helpful acts toward others, like cooperating, donating, and sharing. As Fallyn Smith, an elementary school counselor and family coach, explains, children who show these behaviors “are more likely to have positive relationships, a better understanding of situations as well as an easier time when facing challenges. If children don't learn these skills, they may have a harder time following rules, making friends, completing schoolwork, and coping with challenges.” Children who learn to have empathy are more likely to have close relationships with friends, teachers, siblings, and their parents.1

It’s never too early to start learning about empathy. Think about when a baby smiles at their mother. Mom smiles back, and the baby coos and laughs in response. Parenting expert and developmental psychologist Maryam Abdullah says that “three-month-olds whose parents are able to read and sensitively respond to their emotions grow up to be adolescents with higher levels of empathy. It’s in this give-and-take—this immediate awareness and coordinated response to each other’s feelings—that parents teach babies rules of the social dialogue.”

How parents can help children learn empathy

If you’re a parent, our experts suggest that you:

  1. Show your child love and affection. According to developmental psychologist Jennifer Bateman of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, this is the most important thing that parents can do. She explains that “the emotions that a child experiences are as strong and real to them as the emotions that adults feel. Being consistently responsive to your children’s needs—showing them consistent love, attention, affection, and tenderness—creates the critical foundation on which empathy can develop.”
  2. Listen actively when your child speaks to you. Try to be fully present and free from distractions when you’re speaking with your child. Paraphrase what they’ve told you. Ask questions to help you grasp your child’s perspective instead of immediately offering advice. When your child is expressing intense feelings, acknowledge them rather than question or deny them. According to Abdullah, “By seeing parents’ commitment to understanding their thoughts and feelings in a conversation, children learn that their empathy can grow in everyday interactions with others.”
  3. Help your child notice and name their own emotions. Try “I see you're sad and confused” or “Wow, this makes you happy.” Once a child can understand their own feelings, it’s easier to relate to others. As a child begins to pay attention to other people, you can start pointing out what they may be feeling: “Oh, she looks sad. I wonder what happened.”
  4. Ask your child to imagine how they would feel in someone else’s shoes. By age three, most children are already interacting with one another frequently at school, daycare, birthday parties, and extracurricular activities. Empathy skills can help foster good relationships. Once your child can talk, ask them how they think someone is feeling based on their face, body position, or situation. Look for chances to practice when you’re reading books, playing at the park, or watching a TV show.
  5. Talk with your child about situations where they failed to show empathy. We all make mistakes (grown-ups too). Smith advises that “if your child doesn’t appropriately show empathy in a situation, it's important to discuss and reflect with your child about it in a calm manner. Help guide them to think of how to re-do the moment so they have a chance to learn the skill.” For example, imagine your child leaves someone out while playing. You can ask them to reflect on their past experiences by saying, “Remember when your sister wouldn’t play with you and how upset you were?” You can also ask them to look at the other child's facial expression and body language. “Look at his face and how he is looking down and his mouth is frowning. How do you think he feels right now?”
  6. Set a good example. Show your child how you practice empathy in your life by being there for friends or volunteering as a family. “Kids will see the value parents have for empathy and compassion by their actions. Learning by doing is one way for children to help others and makes it more likely they’ll continue helping,” says Abdullah. Be careful not to offer prizes for being generous or showing gratitude, as this can actually weaken a child’s motivation to help others. Think out loud when you try to be a good friend or take care of someone in need. “I’m going to Mary’s house to drop off some soup because she isn’t feeling well and I want to help her get better.”

Give your child a chance to practice empathy

If your child knows someone who is having a hard time, talk about it. Abdullah suggests these steps:

  1. Ask your child what the person may be thinking or feeling.
  2. Be a sounding board as your child thinks about how to help.
  3. Acknowledge that even grown-ups also need to think about how to help.
  4. Talk about possible outcomes and the pros and cons for each idea.
  5. If your child acts on an idea, follow up. Ask them, “What do you think the other person thought and felt? What are your thoughts and feelings about your actions? What did you learn from this experience?”
  6. Remind your child that their effort to show empathy is important to your family and community.

You can also try this Empathy Bingo activity with your kids.

Endnotes

  1. Nancy Eisenberg, Natalie D. Eggum, and Laura Di Giunta, "Empathy-related responding: Associations with prosocial behavior, aggression, and intergroup relations." Social Issues and Policy Review 4, no. 1 (2010): 143–80.