How Can We Teach Empathy To Children?

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Here are some happy kids! Let’s look at these photos closely—why do you think they are happy?

  • Outdoors

  • Growing Something

  • Working together

  • Working alone but supervised (person taking photo)

Nature deficiency is a whole other topic—another talk —but in short connecting children to nature —to animals —also promotes empathy

But what I like about these photos are the the children are showing compassion for all living things—by caring for them—by tending to their needs—or by helping them have fun.

So how do we develop empathy in children?

1. Help kids develop a moral identity

In one study, researchers found that three- to six-year-old kids who were praised for helping others were less likely to act more generously in the future than kids who were praised for being a helpful person.

What this means is that we help children  develop a moral identity, we tell them we see that they are thoughtful people who value others.

It is one step beyond just praise them for good deeds.

One psychologist named Dr. Borba says that “Missing that crucial piece leaves a huge void in a child’s empathy quotient.”

So what does this look like?

Let’s say a child share a toy with another child when asked to. We typically will say—“Good sharing” or “That was so nice of you to share.”

What Borba would suggest we say is “When you share your toys, I can see you care that others have a turn too.”

2. Encourage empathy through stories

We can help children develop empathy through play-acting, reading books that let them get inside characters’ minds, and watching inspiring movies. Activities that allow careful reflection on how others are feeling in a given situation help build the skills needed for moral action.

A few books that help children develop empathy:

1) The Invisible Boy, by Trudy Ludwig

“The Invisible Boy” follows the journey of Brian, a boy who feels unnoticed by his peers – invisible – in school. Brian is the only kid not chosen for a kickball team and is left out of a fellow student’s birthday party. It isn’t until a new kid, Justin – a boy with a few quirks of his own – joins the class that Brian begins to feel more visible.

2) Amazing Grace, by Mary Hoffman

Grace loves stories – all kinds of stories – and after she hears them she usually acts them out, often giving herself the most exciting role. So when Grace’s teacher tells the class they’re going to perform the play Peter Pan, Grace knows exactly who she wants to be. But other kids disagree: “You can’t be Peter – that’s a boy’s name.” her classmate Raj says. Natalie tells Grace she can’t be Peter Pan because she’s black. At home, Grace’s mom and grandmother try to help her overcome her discouragement and rebuild Grace’s confidence just in time for auditions.

3) Tough Guys (Have Feelings Too), by Keith Negley

Few words and bold illustrations of superheroes with tears in their eyes remind kids that it’s okay for boys to express their emotions.

3. Support empathy education in school

Schools can help teach kindness and empathy. Here are just a few examples—I will share more ideas at the end:

 A kindness board for listing kind acts

Use class values instead of class rules—ask kids how they want their classroom to be for them

4. Examine your values

Speaking of values— our overly competitive culture, and the fact that many kids are pushed to succeed academically rather than pushed to be kinder, better people—leads me to suggest that we can either make achievement and kindness equally important. We must let children know that we value kindness and compassion, and not only reward or  praise achievement, they give the wrong impression to their kids.

5. Be mindful of social media use

Social media can take time away from face-to-face encounters where empathy is born. Let’s pay careful attention to how much time kids spend online and to make sure that time is balanced with more in-person conversations and a focus on caring.

AAP recommends only two hours of screen time for children over the age of 2 years and no screen time for children 0-2 years.

6. Help kids find their inner hero

Heroic action in kids can be nurtured as we ask kids to stand speak up about bullying behavior by their classmates or siblings.

A lot of children don’t intervene in bullying because they feel powerless, don’t know what to do, assume someone else will intervene, or worry they won’t get support from adults.

To help our kids act courageously, it’s important that we help kids find their inner hero by setting a good example of standing up for others ourselves, by teaching them how to effectively say no bullying behaviors and diffuse bullying situations, and by making them aware of how peers can support each other.

Research has shown that the best way to stop bullying behavior in children is to get children to stop being bystanders and to step in to turn the situation around.

This is a another big discussion.

But basically when we teach empathy, we set up our children to be active bystanders to bullying behavior.