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Teaching Children Empathy

Nap time was still in progress with mats and blankets and peacefully sleeping children spread about the classroom, but that didn’t stop two toddlers from shrilly shrieking, “Mine!” as they raced each other across the room, each clearly thinking the other child was running for their prized possession. I will never forget the surprised expression on each child’s face when they snatched up the cherished items, one a velvet trimmed blue blanket and the other a fuzzy little lamb, and realized they had both been running for different items. Because these children were still developing empathy, the ability to look at the world from another person’s perspective, they had not yet developed the understanding that each one wanted their own comfort item, not each other’s. In fact, this is one milestone I watched for as a teacher. A young child’s first steps would be sympathizing with another child, recognizing that another child was hurt or sad, but not yet able to discern what the other child needed. At this point they might offer a crying friend their own blanket or pacifier, believing it would comfort the other child like it did them. As children began developing empathy, they would be able to recognize what would soothe another child, and then they could understand what their friend needed to feel better. The benefits of empathy are endless. With empathy we can understand people who are less fortunate, people with disabilities, people experiencing homelessness, people from other cultures, and people with different pronouns. And at home, we can understand our child, our partner, or our neighbor better. With enough empathy we would be kinder, fight less, protect more, and demonstrate compassion for everyone.

As mammals, we are hardwired to develop empathy. In fact, it’s the rare human who doesn’t experience some amount of empathy for others. However, empathy can be taught and strengthened. Giving your children opportunities to practice empathy early on will help them learn to sustain healthy relationships, make and maintain friends, and work toward making the world a better place for future generations. People with empathy make great leaders, cultivate successful relationships at work, and have the skills needed to connect with others. So, how do we go about teaching our children empathy? Below are some tips to help your child develop empathy for others.

Connect with Your Child

Young infants are not able to regulate their own emotions without adult help. Just as infants cry to show they are hungry or soiled, their cries also tell us when they are startled, scared, or injured. We need to respond to a baby’s cries for comfort as much as we need to respond to their need for food or a clean diaper. You instinctively soothe your infant by holding them, rocking, singing, or reassuring them. You know that your baby likes to suck a certain kind of pacifier or wants to snuggle with a blankey. As children develop the skills for self-regulation, they will be able to begin soothing themselves and will depend on your attention less and less. Even if your child seems too young to understand, it’s never too early to start talking to them about their feelings and emotions. “I see you crying, do you feel sad?” “It looks like you could use a hug.” “I think you’re hungry, I’m heating up your food right now.” Although children need to be taught acceptable ways to express their emotions, you should teach them that it is okay to feel any emotion. “I hear you saying, ‘I’m angry,’ it’s okay to shout, ‘I’m angry!’ but you can’t hit Mommy.” Children learn emotional intelligence as you label feelings, teach them that their feelings are okay and you will help them when they are overwhelmed with big feelings.

Talk About Feelings and Emotions

There are teachable moments everywhere for children to learn about emotions, ask your child questions to help support their building empathy. “I see that little girl crying, I wonder why she’s sad?” “Do you think your friend got hurt? I wonder what we can do to help him feel better?” Look at magazines and study people’s faces with your child, get some emotion cards and look through them together, read books and ask questions, “Why is the elephant sad? What will the mouse do to help him?” Play with dolls or puppets and use them as a tool to teach about emotions. Little children are egocentric, they believe everyone is just like them. This is a great time to teach children that people are similar and different in many ways. Read books about other cultures and countries, books about different kinds of families, and books about people with disabilities.

Encourage Your Child’s Progress

Our children love to please us, and they notice when we offer specific praise. We can encourage children to practice empathy by pointing out what we see, “It was very kind of you to share your blocks with that little girl,” “You were very helpful when you helped Mommy set the table,” “It’s nice of you to let your little brother chose the movie.” Remember, children are still learning empathy. When your child inevitably misses the mark, they hit a friend, grab a toy from another child, or tease their sibling, keep in mind they are still learning. Even when your child knows the right thing to do, they are still practicing impulse control, their body often reacts before their brain can override the impulse because that part of your child’s brain isn’t fully developed yet. Instead of getting angry or frustrated with your child, help them chose what to do next. “I know you hit your friend because you were angry, but we can’t hit, hitting hurts. Now your friend is crying, how can we help him feel better?” “I think that girl was playing with that toy, and we can’t take toys from other people, let’s give her toy back and I will help you find something else to play with.” “I think those words hurt your brother’s feelings. What should we do if we hurt someone’s feelings?”

A Note on “Sorry”

I never try to make children say “sorry” because sorry doesn’t really mean anything. Usually, when you ask a child to say sorry, they will either mutter it with no intonation or refuse to say it at all. I have been in many a classroom where a child hit any other child within reach while uttering “sorry” to each one. And we have all seen the awkward play-by-play where a parent tries to force a child to say “sorry,” the child refuses, and then the adult and child spend way too long in a tug-of-war which everyone else has begun to lose interest in. In fact, “sorry” often becomes a battle where the word loses all meaning. How many arguments can you think of where “sorry” actually meant “sorry”? In the adult world, we can’t go around assaulting strangers or damaging property and get away with it by apologizing. When we teach children to say “sorry” we aren’t really teaching them about real life consequences, and we definitely aren’t teaching them about empathy. Instead, teach your child to solve the problem using real world consequences. If they hit another child they can offer that child a hug, a band aid, or an ice pack, at the very least ask them to ask the child, “Are you okay?” This starts a dialog with the person they hit. If they knock down another child’s tower, have your child ask if they want help building it back up and have them help clean up the mess. If siblings hurt each other’s feelings (or anything else) ask them to think through how the other child might be feeling and offer solutions.

Young children thrive on connection. Your child wants to form close relationships with you, other family members, and close friends. If we don’t encourage our child’s development of empathy, it will be more difficult for them to make friends, interact with their peers, and treat others with kindness and compassion. You can have a large influence on your child’s development of empathy and their ability to see the world from another’s person’s perspective. The tools to teach children empathy are simple techniques you can practice every day. If we all teach our children empathy, the world will be a gentler, kinder place.

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