How to Teach Empathy to Your Child

Raising young people to be empathetic and caring demands a thoughtful balancing act between exposure and protection.

By Craig Kielburger and Marc Kielburger

Raising young people to be empathetic and caring demands a thoughtful balancing act between exposure and protection. Kids, like adults, may experience empathetic distress if they see a person in trouble. When children take on real or imagined feelings of suffering they may show signs of stress that include trembling, sweating or crying. To escape such feelings, a child may turn away or else reach out to relieve the distress. This is where parents can play an important role.

When we were first exposed to homelessness, Mom and Dad understood we would be distressed. They took time to discuss why someone might not have a home or a job or food. We considered what it might feel like to live on the streets. Labeling and discussing emotions is the first step to teaching empathy.

The next step is to support children to find a way to help. On the issue of homelessness, just for example, parents can: encourage children to offer a smile or a sandwich; collect change in a jar to donate to a shelter; gather sleeping bags, winter coats and blankets; and raise awareness, squash stereotypes and challenge misconceptions about homelessness.

 

Here are 7 more ways to help your kids develop empathy:

Give it a name

Help children name and process what they are feeling whether they are happy, sad, afraid or stressed out. Once they can articulate their emotions, encourage them to think about the feelings of others.

Ask questions

Ask “how would you feel if…?” It’s a question that’s perfect for every occasion. Ask kids to put themselves in someone else’s shoes—happy or sad, whether they agree with them or not.

Do it often

Make thanks a habit and invite every person around the dinner table to express gratitude for something that happened during the day.

Get a pet

Caring for an animal—large or small—is a natural way to nurture compassion in a child. When appropriate, older children can be asked to tend
to younger siblings.

Learn together

Together, learn more about social issues like poverty or access to clean water. Discuss your findings. It’s important to talk about each action. Ask your child how it felt to act on his or her feelings. If helping felt good, make the link. If it induced fear, explore the reasons why. Reinforce and congratulate empathetic behavior. In this way, it will become a part of who your child is.

Find role models

Morally courageous people don’t often make front- page news, but don’t let that stop you from highlighting acts and decisions that are worth celebrating.

Lead by example

A study in Holland found that children are most likely to volunteer if their parents give time to the community. In other words, the volunteer work you do today will inspire the volunteers of tomorrow. Get started now.