Teaching Empathy to Children – Teach. Play. Love. Episode 35

Empathy is a complex skill, and a skill that even adults continue to work on through the years. So, what are some simple ways to start teaching it to a young child? How can you guide your child to eventually become an empathetic teenager and adult? Listen to this episode to get advice from our education experts Rachel Robertson and Claire Goss.

We’re all born hard-wired for empathy — but we have to work at it. How can you help your child build this lifelong skill? In this episode, early education experts Rachel Robertson and Claire Goss offer a run-down on what empathy is and why it’s important. Plus, hear how to set appropriate expectations for your child’s age group and learn proactive, simple ways to encourage empathy in everyday life.

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Resources: Teaching Empathy to Children

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November 30, 2021


Claire: Rachel, I am excited to talk to you today because I was thinking about some parents I spoke to a few weeks ago and they were talking about why it is their kids have such a hard time sharing and why their kids don't seem very aware of their classmate's feelings. And such an interesting topic, I think. So, I thought we could talk a little bit today about empathy. Can you give me a rundown on what empathy is?

Rachel: Yeah. This is a good topic, and it is hard to understand. It's a pretty sophisticated skill for all of us, and we expect a lot from little children when they're just developing this. Empathy is really the ability to...first, you have to be able to imagine how someone else is feeling in a particular situation and then respond appropriately. This requires that you can recognize feelings in yourself and others. Think of all these things I'm saying. These are tricky developmental things kids need to learn how to do and pull them all together. So, recognize feelings in yourself and others and have a name for them that you'd be able to say, "This is mad, I'm mad right now, or I'm frustrated right now." That's what this feels like. And then be able to regulate your own emotional responses, so that means that you have this tough feeling. And it's a big feeling. And you have very few options available to you as a little kid because you haven't learned that many yet, to regulate your own emotional responses. So, maybe you have to wait for something, or you have to put your emotions aside to put somebody else's first, you control your behavior. If you've ever told a child to wait or had to wait yourself, you're regulating your own responses. Then you have to put yourself in someone else's shoes and imagine how they might feel and what kind of action or response might help that other person feel better. That is a whole lot of development.

Claire: That sounds exhausting.

Rachel: Yeah, that's a lot going on. And we do it as adults, hopefully, pretty naturally and you don't have to think through each one of these steps, but a young child is just learning how to do each one of these things, both socially and emotionally. But they're also developing the cognitive capacity to even understand some of these things. Of course, we want our children to be empathetic. It's a really important life skill because children and adolescents that are empathetic are definitely more likely to engage in positive social behaviors and that brings back positive social things to them as well. They're more likely to share, help others, less likely to be antisocial, or exhibit uncontrolled aggression, or anything negative. So, children with high empathy will have more positive results in all of their life, including social life. And those results will result in additional positive things happening in their life.

Claire: Yes, and my favorite thing to tell parents is that research shows, this is a fun fact, that we are born hardwired with the capacity for empathy, but its development requires experience and practice. So, we can all be empathetic humans, but it takes intention, all right? So, just because we're hardwired with the skill doesn't mean that it comes easily or naturally. We have to work at it. We have to work at it, especially as young children, right? It's a brand new skill. But I am many decades into my life, and I'm still working on this skill every day, every week. So, it is a practice. Another thing I like to emphasize to parents is just to have really appropriate expectations about what your baby, toddler, preschooler can do. So, we talk a lot about brain development at Bright Horizons. We're always talking about baby brains and toddler brains and preschooler brains and what can they do. How old are they when they make certain connections? And that's where this comes in. It's really important.

So, 18-month-olds to 24-month-olds, so we're talking about before they even turn two, they really don't even understand that they are very different from the people around them. Around 18 months old to 24 months old toddlers get that very early perspective taking, that's when they first realize that their thoughts and feelings are different than the thoughts and feelings of the people around them. I mean, that's pretty amazing. Think about your 13-month-old, 14-month-old barreling around the room, it really hasn't even occurred to them that you're thinking something different than what they're thinking. So, second birthday rolls by, by the preschool years, children start to become more aware that people have separate feelings and experiences. They start to build the skills to engage in the very beginning of perspective-taking. So that's just the foundation, right? It's a precursor to being able to develop empathy. So, before you can stand in someone else's shoes, and imagine what they're feeling and thinking, the first step is even realizing they have a different perspective from you. So, that's what our preschool friends are working on.

Rachel: Well, and I think anyone listening as a parent or if you're an educator working with children at all or around children, we probably said to a child in a moment when they have shown a lot less than empathy, "How would that make you feel?" And they literally don't know the answer to that question if you're asking at these ages. They're basically like, "I'm fine. I guess we're all fine. So, I'll take this toy I just took from someone else because I think we're all good here. I'm set."

Claire: Great. I feel great about this. That's a great decision I just made. That all parents are kind of nodding along to this right now because we've all been in that situation. Their brains cannot process a different reality than that. Okay? So, adjust those expectations. Your preschooler is probably not doing this to you on purpose, at you on purpose, this is just you're watching their brains grow. By the time kids get to be about six or seven years old, they're entering elementary school, that's about the age that they're really kind of fully capable of taking another person's perspective. And also a great age around six or seven is when they can start offering solutions when they notice another child is in distress. So that's when you start seeing kids say, "Oh, I can see you're upset that your ball rolled away. I'm gonna run over and get it for you." Right? That's empathy right there. They saw their friend in a distress, they noticed the problem, they said, "I can see how you're feeling." And they took that extra step to help solve the problem. That is empathy in action, but...

Rachel: In action, yeah.

Claire: Before six or seven years old, not even capable of doing something like that.

Rachel: And I think it's important to remember, so if your six-year-old or seven-year-old isn't doing that yet, it's okay. This all develops over time. Children are at different places with all types of development, including social-emotional development, empathy falls right in there. And even if they have the skill, it's what we'd call an insecure skill. So, it's not real strong. They're practicing it, they're working on it. It's not necessarily instinctual yet. Some children, it will be, but not all of them. And many of them are still developing these capacities. So, don't expect by seven that they're going to be doing all sorts of empathetic things around the house or at school, but they'll be definitely starting or able to think about it.

Claire: Yeah, it's not a consistent skill even for some adults I know, it's not a consistent skill. So, we're all working on it. So, we ran through what is empathy and what can you expect based on the age of your child. So, Rachel, this is a question I got a few weeks ago. Let's say you're a mom of a preschooler, this is like a goal of yours, this is a parenting goal, I want my children to have empathy. What would you suggest? What are some proactive things you can do with your kids at home to encourage empathy?

Rachel: There's a lot of things you can do, and they're pretty simple. You can weave them into your regular day of things you're already doing. So, that's good news. While you said earlier that this takes practice and intentionality, it doesn't take a lot of extra work. So, first of all, we talked about that one of the things developmentally you have to be able to do if you're going to have empathy is you have to be able to recognize a name your feelings. So, you do that, do that at your house all the time. Talk about those, name their feelings, ask them, "I see your fists balled up and your face looks kind of upset. Do you feel angry right now?" Would that be the right word or tell me what the feelings word is? Some people make charts to help children, take pictures of their face, or a book that has pictures of other children's faces, and really spend some time labeling those emotions, the behaviors that are connected to the emotions. And, of course, be a role model. One of my tips I give parents all the time is just narrate your own feelings. I am feeling so disappointed right now because this is happening. Because if you just respond to something, and you're quiet about it, or you're trying to keep it to yourself, they're not learning anything from that, you're wasting that learning moment.

Of course, if you don't have anything positive in that moment to say you might want to hold on to it until you can be a good role model there. But if you can show how you're frustrated, or you're having a tough feeling, or somebody took something you wanted or something that would require empathy, and you are able to work yourself through it, they're going to learn from that more than just watching you because they can't hear the process you're going through. Obviously, we want to do things when you're thinking about being a role model, showing empathy, showing you care for somebody else, showing that you have a demonstrated interest, whether it's sorrow, or whether it's forgiveness, whatever it might be that you are demonstrating those feelings through your actions, whether it's not verbal strategies or behavior. So, can I help someone? Can I open a door? Someone is struggling with groceries. All these simple things that you're running into throughout your daily life, how can you help? How can you notice that and have empathy and then take action?

Claire: I really like what you just said about noticing. I like to notice my kids being empathetic to each other. Yesterday when my son held the door open for me when I had the mail and the dog leash and everything I just said, "Oh, I noticed that you opened the door for me. You saw me struggling. Thank you. That was really kind."

Rachel: Right. Yeah, there's a lot of positive reinforcement in that you're saying. I noticed this, this matters to me, it made a difference for me. And even doing that in your daily life, whether you're at the grocery store, or the post office, the doctor's office, or anyone, if they hear you saying sharing your gratitude, being grateful, is part of showing empathy. I see you went out of your way, you did this for me, and this is how it affected me. Plus, you get to make a whole bunch of people's day if you're doing that kind of behavior, and your kids get to see the result from you, but also of the recipient of that.

Claire: That's right.

Rachel: And, of course, one of our favorite things to recommend, because it works is play. Play really helps children make sense of their world. That is why they act out scenarios, even scenarios that can feel kind of tough to watch children play. Of course, we want to keep them safe and have some boundaries around it, but play is how they're figuring stuff out. So, they see adults fighting, they might replicate that in play. That's how they learn how to process it. So, they build some empathy. Children playing with dolls, or toys, or taking care of something, and we want all children, not just girls, but all children to have that sense of taking care of others through play. That can really build some empathetic skills, different roleplay. A lot of times when they play with a doll or toy that's a figurine or something, they give that character some tough feelings or difficult behaviors, and you can observe how they're working that out. Or if you're invited into the play, you can help build those empathetic skills through that play, you can join in.

Claire: Yeah, it's such a good sign, I think, when children assign different emotions to toys that they're playing with because they can recognize that even their toys have different perspectives.

Rachel: Right.

Claire: So, they're showing the empathy between their toys, such a great milestone.

Rachel: And a lot of kids really direct play. So, my oldest daughter, she did this all the time, is she would say, "My character says this. Now you say this. This is how I want your character to respond." And sometimes we did that, but sometimes we didn't do that because that gave her a new challenge. She had to figure out how to respond to something, plus we need a little creative license ourselves if we're gonna play with her dollhouse all day. The last thing I want to say is about reading. And reading is something we talk about a lot as well, again, because it works, it's really valuable. And you can teach so much through reading a book. You're creating a routine and a ritual that children love, you're having a transition maybe to go to a bed or naptime, you're developing literacy skills, but you're also teaching them about people, and how people work. So, there are characters in books. What are their emotions? What are they expressing? What do you think they might need? How do they feel in the situation? What if that was you? That's when you can practice that question. What if that was you, how would you feel about that? What do you think someone could do for that character? This builds a lot of perspective and some really good foundational empathy skills.

Claire: Okay. So, those are all some great strategies, things you can do tonight with your children. What happens, Rachel, let's talk about some defensive maneuvers. You're at the playground, you're four-year-old or five-year-old is in the sandbox, and they see they want the bright yellow dump truck, they want to play with it. So, they walk over, and they grab it out of a child's hand and shove the other kid to the ground because they wanted the truck. And you're sitting there as the parent and you are just mortified.

Rachel: Right. Yep, we've all been there. Anyone who's been a parent has had their child do something like that. And it's so embarrassing. And we want to just jump in and solve it. And often we say things like, "Say you're sorry." So, in a moment, especially if it's someone you don't know, that might be the right strategy to apologize, model apologizing. But in the moment, you are dealing with it in a couple different ways. Just know that that saying you're sorry is not building any empathy skills, especially if there's no discussion later or before that because that is mostly a get-out-of-jail-free card, at that point. I'll just say sorry. It's meaningless in that moment.

Claire: That's right.

Rachel: So, proactively, what does it mean to be sorry? What do you do? When do you say sorry? Watch me say sorry. Adults need to model saying sorry. What is the kind of behavior you would do if you hurt someone? So, practicing that so that when in the moment, those skills, those resources are available to you. Children can feel bad and embarrassed about what they did too, even though they did it in the moment, so they might be resisting some of this. So, give them away to help. How do you problem-solve? What can we do? That child is crying. You hurt them. How can you be part of solving this? Sometimes it's going to get a band-aid. Kids have a lot of ideas in that moment. Maybe I'll sit with them. Maybe I'll give them a new toy. I have been a teacher, as well as a parent and I have helped hundreds of kids through these moments. And they come up with fantastic ideas about how to help. They help, they're part of the solution. They learned from it. Everybody builds empathy skills, work together skills, and in the end, it results in some growth even though it was a tricky moment, versus giving them away. We don't want to give them away that they don't understand what they learned from it. They don't build any skills from it, and no one is really any better off in the situation.

Claire: That's right. That check-in, right? What can I do to make you feel better? What can I do to make the situation better for this child? That's just the foundation. That's it. That's the whole life lesson right there. So, we covered a lot of different strategies today. And I just wanted to re-emphasize what you said that empathy does develop. There's no set age, exact age when you should expect your child to be 100% empathetic all the time. It is a lifetime skill that we are all working on all the time and does depend on some other factors like temperament, the kind of environment they're in, and their personal experiences. But it is a skill that we all have the capacity to learn and work on and practice. So, it's really worth it. It's really worth the parenting effort. If you can spend some time working on it, it's really going to have a big long-term impact.