Are you looking for ways to teach empathy? It might not be easy, but I’m convinced it’s possible to raise kind, compassionate, and empathetic children!
It might not be easy, and it will take a lot of intention, but if we start early and instill the characteristics of empathy in our children often, I believe we can raise children with empathetic hearts.
Some children’s personalities will lend themselves to a natural empathy.
Empathy was something that was innate in me from an early age. I remember reading and hearing tragic stories and crying in grief for people I didn’t even know because I could feel their feelings.
But as I’ve learned about personality types, I’ve come to grasp that I’ve been wired with empathy. I’m an intuitive feeler (and ENFP on the Myers-Briggs), so empathy is part of my personality.
So far, I can see that one of my three children has a more natural leaning toward empathy. But I must teach empathy to my others–and continue to cultivate this natural empathy in her.
Cultivating empathy can help us to develop deeper friendships, and I know that is something we all want for our children.
4 Ways to Teach Empathy:
1. Infuse them with story.
I’ve been a lover of literature from an early age, and I’m learning that one way to teach empathy to our children is to expose them to a variety of characters–both real and fictitious–who experience the emotions that all of us experience.
These stories can come through both books and television or movies.
When we are drawn into story, we take on the feelings those in the stories are experiencing. They experience tragedy, and we do too–vicariously through them. As they experience victories, we can celebrate with them because their stories stir our hearts.
Some of my favorite genres I’m seeking to expose my children to include:
- Bible stories: We read to our children from a children’s Bible as often as possible.
- Classic fiction: The girls and I have been listening to classic audio books for the past year.
- Biographies and Autobiographies: Reading about how historical figures overcame unbelievable circumstances is a key empathy builder.
- Character books: There are several well-written books like Train Your Dragon or A Little Spot or Bible Belles that deal with emotions or specific character traits that teach kids about these areas.
- Specific chapter books: Be selective in the chapter books your kids read, and focus on stories that will teach empathy. Our oldest especially enjoys series like American Girl® books (including the new Wellie-Wishers™ series, which is aimed at teaching compassion, kindness, and empathy). I love how AG’s products align with our family’s mission of teaching our girls the values of kindness, compassion, and empathy.
- TV shows and movies that teach empathy: The new Wellie-Wishers™ show, available on Amazon Prime, teaches these same qualities of kindness, empathy, and compassion in a modern, animated setting. We also love shows like Adventures in Odyssey and Superbook.
2. Expose them to a variety of people.
When we grow up around others exactly like us, we think the world should be exactly like us.
Perhaps one of the best ways to teach empathy toward others is to expose our children to people from variety of races, languages, and socio-economic backgrounds.
This might not be an issue if you live in a diverse area and send your children to your local public school, but especially for those of us who live in predominantly white, suburban neighborhoods, we must seek to intentionally expose our children to the beautiful variety of the world.
One way we’ve done this is to take our children to Costa Rica and Canada, and we hope to eventually travel with them to other countries.
We are also teaching them some Spanish, and we give them dolls of all races.
3. Talk about feelings.
When you are reading stories, when you are watching TV shows or movies, when a sibling cries or is joyful, point it out to your children.
When you notice feelings in characters and real people alike, ask your children: “How would you feel if that were you?”
Talking about feelings can help your children realize they aren’t the only ones who experience those feelings. It can help teach empathy for others who get sad, happy, angry, and go through the wide gamut of emotions all of us humans experience.
4. Teach them to treat others like they want to be treated.
The Golden Rule, taken from Matthew 7 and Luke 6, isn’t just a cliché; it’s words to live by!
Teach your children to “do unto others as they would have them do unto them.”
Before they take action, ask them to imagine how they would feel if someone were to behave in such a way to them. Ask them to put themselves in others’ shoes, pretending they were that person.
Placing ourselves in others’ positions can go a long way in fostering lifelong empathy in our children–and in ourselves.
I am always fascinated that I have one child for whom empathy comes very naturally. And one who needs a lot of guidance and encouragement. It is a quality I truly desire all of my children to possess…because as an adult I see how rare it is for someone to simply empathize (instead of offering advice, etc.). Good thoughts.
These are all great ways to teach that. We try to install in our kids to serve others and look for ways to help others out. It is so important that they see the needs of others. We also are teaching them to read the emotions of others and understand that what they have to say can greatly affect the other person’s emotions. Definitely not an easy job for sure.
For me, I first had to remember that my oldest as a two year old wasn’t purposely being a bully! Children, developmentally, aren’t capable of feeling empathy until closer to 3 or 4. So just remembering that saved my sanity a bit.
He’s still pretty me-oriented, though, now that he’s 3. What I try to do is point out the specific signs of feeling coupled with the reason why. “You pushed her. Now she’s crying. After you pushed her, she felt sad.” “He’s crying because he has an owie on his finger. Do you remember how it felt when you got your owie? (then I touch it to remind him). His owie is hurting him just like yours did.”