Teaching Kids About Empathy

I often get frustrated when talking to other parents or teachers about children’s education, as so much of the discourse revolves around ‘academic’ and ‘school’ learning.  It’s great that our kids can learn about science with STEM toy before they’re toilet-trained, but no one ever seems to talk about helping children to develop truthfulness, a sense of justice or empathy. 

Children need to learn moral behavior and principles just as much as numbers and letters, and a strong sense of empathy will be one of the cornerstones of a caring, responsible and kind adult.  However, just like math and science, a child’s potential for empathy needs to be nurtured and encouraged.  Science has even shown that there are specific parts of the brain that deal with empathy and that compassion can be trained, so let get the training started immediately with a few ideas to encourage empathy to children. 

1. Teach kids words that describe emotions
To appreciate empathy, your little one needs to understand what emotions are and have a vocabulary to express them.  This can begin with very simple everyday conversations about how they or you are feeling:

  • “I can see that you are disappointed because we can’t go to the park today.”
  • “Are you excited that grandpa is coming to stay for the week?”
  • “I’m frustrated because the bad traffic made me get home from work late. It makes me sad because I have less time to spend with you.”

Scientific research has shown that understanding emotions and knowing the words to describe them helps people to control themselves and makes them less likely to hurt others. Therefore, helping your child to understand how they and others feel and giving them the words to express these feelings will be an important first step in teaching empathy.

2. Help children ‘read’ faces

According to psychological studies, the ability to ‘read’ emotions in faces is an important part of developing empathy.  However, younger children and toddlers often find it difficult to recognize people’s facial expressions, making it hard to empathize.

Playing simple games with children, such as picking out the feelings in the picture below, or acting out emotions with them in role play, will help them learn to recognize facial expressions, a key tool they need for empathic behavior.

3. Praise and encourage empathic behavior in kids

When you see your child showing empathy, praise this behavior, and make it clear that they understand why you are doing so.  For example:

“It was very kind of you to let your little sister play with your trucks today.  She was upset, and you really cheered her up.”

In this way, you can positively reinforce this kind of good behavior and encourage them to continue.  Please be aware, though, that studies have shown that rewarding good behavior with presents or money actually makes children less likely to be helpful or generous. 

4. Discuss TV shows and books

Discussing other’s emotions will contribute a lot to their emotional development.  For example, every good kid’s book will have characters showing emotions in the story, and you can start with simple questions like “How does the rabbit feel here?” and “Why do you think he feels that way?”. 

These discussions can then move into real-life examples, like things that happen at nursery or school, and will help your child think about how others feel, and how their actions can affect them.

5. Teach kids respect and tolerance for all

Studies have shown that humans, in general, are much more likely to empathize with those they feel familiar with or connected to.  Therefore, as a parent, you need to teach your child to respect others and help them to understand how their actions can make others feel happy or sad.  Teaching children to respect for the elderly, men and women, different religions and ethnic groups and also about the similarities between us all will help them to show empathy and compassion for all.  Focus on what unites us, not on what separates us.

 6. Be a role model for empathy

“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”
  — James Baldwin

Children learn through imitation, consciously and unconsciously, and genuinely demonstrating empathy, tolerance, and care for other’s well-being will set the strongest foundation for your child. 

However, parents who preach empathy but are argumentative and intolerant with each other and the family will only confuse their children. Worse still, the children’s natural tendency to imitate their parent’s behavior can easily win over following what their parents say, so don’t underestimate the impact of the example you set.  


Links for Further Reading 

Matt Morrisey is a former teacher who has traveled all over the world teaching children English, from China to the UK. He is currently writing for www.buzzparent.com and loves to write about parenting topics ranging from kids toys, activities for kids, parenting hacks and lifestyle. He loves remote control drones and cannot wait until he opens his window to allow a drone to enter with an Amazon package! His work has been read by readers all over the world and features on blogs and websites all over the world. Matt recently decided to go back to university to do his Ph.D. where he looks to continue his career.