How parents can help foster empathy in children

Seven surprisingly simple habits bring families together.


How parents can help foster empathy in children

Seven surprisingly simple habits bring families together.


No matter where we are in the world—or with whom—we end our bustling days of service with an invitation: “Share one moment that moved you.”

Sometimes we’re guiding a group of young leaders on a local community effort. Often, we’re sitting with several families at one long table after a day mixing concrete in Kenya’s Massai Mara, or painting a new classroom in the Amazon jungle. We always finish the day by asking each person to share one moment. Although the exercise is simple, its effects are profound. Teenagers may roll their eyes at first, but quickly emerge from their shells. Siblings call truces. High-powered executives tear up.

The simple act of sharing a personal experience can be transformative. Parents take us aside to ask if they might recreate the magic back home. Of course they can—it’s not just the act of volunteer service that moves us, it’s the familiar emotions. At the heart of the inquiry is a timely question for parents everywhere: How do you nurture empathy?

It’s also becoming a question in academic circles. The Harvard Graduate School of Education is gathering experts to study the practices and routines that help families raise compassionate kids. Research is in its early stages, but the launch itself is telling: parents want to raise kids who care and contribute.

When approached for advice, we reflect on our own childhoods. Our parents first taught us about the power of shared moments, revealing their daily highs and lows. Around our dinner table, we talked about an awkward encounter with the new kid at school. Mom and Dad were educators who could share from experience that every student is different and that some people take time to open up. They helped Craig take on the kids who tormented him for his speech impediment, suggesting he consider their perspective—how insecure and vulnerable they must be feeling. When Marc ran a losing campaign for class president, they helped him find words to describe the loss.

As kids, learning to define and express our own emotions helped us decipher and consider the feelings of others. Mom and Dad shared, too, sketching challenging moments at work, or sharing quiet acts of courage that we might otherwise not have known about. It helped us get to know our parents a bit better, learning about their lives outside our home. We got to experience their reactions second hand.

As a parent, you can stop to share a moment from your day, or help foster empathy with these other chances to reflect.

Make thanks a habit: Take a moment—on the way to bed or on the walk to school—to express gratitude for something big or small.

Share quiet acts of integrity: Tell your kids about something you did for someone else.

Parents, say you’re sorry: Own up to your mistakes. Not only is apologizing the right thing to do, it shows kids how it’s done.

Discover a new perspective: Consider the feelings of others. If you witness another child’s meltdown, discuss what might have prompted it. “Do you think the little girl was hungry? Or tired? Do you remember how it felt when you asked to go to the playground and I said no?”

If there’s a disagreement at school: “Why do you think your classmate was upset with you?” or “Was that the right thing for you to say? What should you do differently next time?”

Champion a pet project: Caring for an animal is a natural way to nurture compassion. If you’re not ready for a furry friend of your own, offer to dog-sit for the neighbors. Taking care of a dog is proven to nurture empathy and responsibility, and boost kids’ self-esteem.

And remember the question: How would you feel if …? It’s perfect for every situation.

Craig Kielburger
Craig Kielburger
Craig and Marc Kielburger

Craig Kielburger and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.