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The Caring Connection: Teaching Empathy to Children

Developing and Teaching Empathy to Kids

As parents, we hope our children will grow to be successful adults, but what exactly defines success? Financial prowess? Athletic ability? Most parents would list emotional and social competence near the top of the list. Developing emotional intelligence during child development and relating to others is perhaps more important than almost any other skill. Children who develop the traits of empathy and compassion early on are more likely to have happy, productive relationships in both their professional and personal lives as adults.

Fortunately, "the capacity for empathy and sympathy already exists in each child from infancy," observed Rachel Robertson, Senior Director of Education and Development at Bright Horizons. "Infants demonstrate this capacity when they show sadness or cry when they hear another infant cry; older infants and toddlers sometimes offer their toy or blanket to a distressed peer."

"It's up to parents and teachers to nurture these instincts," said Robertson, author of Healthy Children, Healthy Lives (2012), "and teaching empathy and compassion isn't as difficult as it might sound." Set a positive example in your life and watch for simple opportunities to reinforce those skills. Below are a few ideas to get you started on how to teach empathy to your kids.

Tips for Teaching Empathy to Children

  • Model generosity of spirit. Raising caring and giving children is a process and they learn more from what we do than what we say. When they're treated with respect and kindness, they learn those characteristics themselves. Try to remember that children have limited life experiences. The occasional unkind remark, spat with a sibling, or full-on meltdown is part of their learning process. View these moments as teaching opportunities and respond with a firm, but loving and kind, response.
  • Get a pet. Caring for a pet is a wonderful way for children to learn empathy for another creature. Choose a pet that is well-suited to your family's lifestyle and let your child help you care for it.
  • Express appreciation when your child shows empathy or offers service. Say, "I noticed how patient you were when Kate was feeling frustrated. I think that really made her feel better."
  • Teach children to help others and look for simple opportunities to serve in your neighborhood. Rake an elderly neighbor's leaves or shovel a snowy sidewalk. Take a meal to a family after an illness or the birth of a baby. Buy extra school supplies for children in need or donate food to a food bank. Include your child in these activities and discuss how good it feels to serve someone else.
  • Create a safe zone to talk about negative feelings. Feeling mad, sad, scared, or frustrated is part of the human experience. Teach your children how to talk about these feelings and find solutions. When kids have a healthy outlet for their emotional angst, they're better able to develop and feel compassion and empathy for others.
  • Help your child understand another's perspective. For example, when your elementary-age child quarrels with a friend, listen to her side of the story carefully and with empathy. Then say something like, "Hmm, that's unlike Jenna to yell at you. I wonder if she was tired or if something else was bothering her. How do you think she was feeling?"

Developing compassion and empathy doesn't happen overnight. For many of us, learning to establish positive relationships with others is a lifelong effort. But even very young children instinctively crave connections with others, and your small efforts to teach empathy can yield big results.

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