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Teaching Empathy to Children

Most children are inherently kind and caring, and even understand that people have thoughts and feelings outside of their own. However, empathy is a skill we learn, and it must be cultivated through practice and exposure. Just like any new skill, this can take time, and children will learn best by being exposed to it in everyday life. Even the most perceptive of children can need help distinguishing less obvious or less visible emotions, such as emotions that people don’t necessarily display externally. We’ve curated some of our favorite tips to help develop empathy in your children.

  1. Read Stories

Studies have shown that reading fiction to children, or with children, can help promote empathy. Especially children’s picture books that expose children to age-appropriate topics surrounding diversity and various cultures. While reading, you can even pause to ask questions such as, "How do you think they feel right now?", "What do you think he needs?", or even “What would you do if that happened to you?”These three book lists ― curated by Common Sense Media and the National Public Radio ― are a good place to start.

  1. Play Pretend

Much like reading fiction or picture books, playing pretend can really help light up a child’s imagination and help develop the same neural pathways that contribute to their ability to express empathy. Whether they’re acting like a superhero or a princess in a faraway castle, they are practicing putting themselves in someone else’s shoes. This is the fundamental building block for developing empathy. You can make it fun and a learning experience, by encouraging your child to engage with your character in a kind and compassionate way. If something difficult or challenging comes up, you can also debrief with your child after playing and explain kindly and gently why considering the needs of others - in addition to our own - is helpful and kind.

  1. Model Behavior

Whether we like it or not, our children are always paying attention to us. Children often look to their caregivers for instruction on how they should behave or carry themselves. If our children watch us modeling empathy, compassion, and care for others, they will learn to do the same. If you do a “good deed” or help support someone else in any way, you can explain the “why” to your child, to help them cement the importance of empathy in connection with others.

  1. Contextualize Differences

Without simply going through the motions, take the time to explain to your child when you see someone who is experiencing homelessness or someone who is less fortunate than you. Explain to your child in a simple way that they can understand how people are different and have had different experiences, and it doesn’t make them less deserving of care or compassion. Children will absorb much of what you do, so while you model the desired behavior, make sure to also explain to them why it matters, how it is important, and how it can relate to their own life. This will help diminish any “otherness” among people who are different from your child, and it will ultimately make them more open and accepting of others.

Be patient with your child - and yourself, please! - while modeling, practicing, and teaching empathy. Most importantly, show your child empathy during this process. They are still learning and definitely are not going to get it all right on the first time. If they make a statement you don’t agree with, take the time to understand why they might have been feeling that way, and talk to them about the validity of their feelings and emotions. Helping your child understand that big feelings and differences are not a “problem” to be solved, but rather an obstacle to navigate, can help them hone their empathy skills in real time. And you’ll maybe even find yourself showing your child more empathy the next time they throw a tantrum.

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