We want our children to be kind and compassionate towards others every day, but particularly in times of adversity. While we can’t predict when tragedy will strike, we can use these difficult times as a way to develop empathy in children.
How to Develop Empathy in Your Child
First of all, we model the behaviors that we want to see. It makes a big impact to first see one’s parents acting with compassion. It makes it more likely that children will try as well. Secondly, we can build helping behaviors into daily life in our homes and talk to our children’s teachers about how helping is incorporated at school or the child care center. For example, most teachers at the child care center have a “classroom helper chart” with jobs that rotate among children in the class. There are several things you can do at home to inspire the same kind of thoughtfulness.
At-Home Kindness Activities for Children
- Create your own helper chart at home on a “wipe-off board” for easy re-use each week.
- Volunteer together as a family. Help serve at a soup kitchen, pick up trash at a local park, or plant flowers or trees.
- Have your child make and send cards to a friend or relative who is sick.
- Ask an older child to read a story to a younger child.
- Take a meal to a sick neighbor who is hospitalized or “under the weather.” Even though your toddler won’t be able to cook, she might be able to help stir. You can also talk to her about what you are doing and why. For example, “Our neighbor, Mrs. Jackson, is sick and can’t cook for herself right now. So we are going to make her some dinner. I’ll need your help to mix up the casserole and then deliver it to her later .”
- Involve your child in chores with regular, small jobs. Talk about how having jobs helps the whole family to work together well. Even though the examples are not directly benefiting people, this approach gives children a way to contribute within their capability. A family works best when everyone contributes. Sample jobs could be: feeding the fish, watering the plants, setting the table, unstacking the dishwasher, or raking leaves.
The Importance of Showing Empathy Around Your Children
Most of our at-home kindness activities are intended to be used with preschoolers and school-agers. For those under three, it goes back to modeling the life perspective you want them to see. Parents need to teach children how to show empathy. Let them see you being kind to others. You can also model empathy through pretend play with dolls. “This baby is crying. I am going to wrap her in a blanket and help her feel better.” Look at books together that show babies from different cultures so he learns to embrace cultural diversity and be respectful towards those who may look or dress differently. One such book is Global Babies (a Global Fund for Children book), which introduces babies and toddlers to infants from different cultures.
Look for service opportunities and include your child in activities that help others. But also be careful that you don’t set your expectations unreasonably high. Most children need an occasional break from sharing and caring if possible. “Today it is just Mommy and Sarah. You get to play with your ball as long as you’d like to.”
The best way for your children to learn caring and empathy comes from you. Given a positive example, most children willingly learn to care for others in small ways that often grow into larger ways.
More information to help parents develop an empathetic child: