Teaching children empathy

Empathy will teach children new ways to care for others.

Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s perspective and to consider it before acting. It’s an important developmental process that all children need, but often a difficult skill for young children to acquire if parents do not model or teach it. Michigan State University Extension experts believe empathy is absolutely essential because the ability to feel empathy is the foundation for forming all human relationships. Loving and trusting relationships give young children the ability to feel secure and to see beyond their own needs. When children are loved and cared for, they can learn to care for others (Cavner, 2008).

Parents and caregivers play an important role in teaching children to be empathetic and it’s important that they do. As parents and caregivers encourage positive interactions between children, children benefit in the following ways:

  • It fosters tolerance and understanding
  • Form healthy relationships throughout life
  • Understand how their choices affect them and those around them

There are many great strategies for teaching empathy. Here is a list parents should be aware of that are introduced in a MSU Extension parenting class, Building Strong Families the Nurturing Way:

  • Have children care for other living things such as plants or pets. Children learn that other living things depend on them for survival.
  • Read books that deal with emotions and feelings such as jealousy, embarrassment and shame. Teach children that there are no bad or wrong feelings, but there are appropriate ways to express our strong emotions and feelings.
  • Teach children about those who are less fortunate or who live in poverty and how people and organizations can provide aid for them.
  • Explain the value and worth of all living things including people who are different from one’s self.  This may include lessons about those of different ethnicities, cultures and religions. Going along with this is teaching children tolerance, acceptance and understanding of those who are different than one’s self. This can be done through choosing books and shows about tolerance and acceptance.
  • Model empathic behavior in front of your children. For example, if you see someone who is hurt, help them if you can. Follow the act up with a conversation about how that person must have felt and how they have felt when they themselves were hurt.

Lastly, it’s important for parents to understand that their children are more likely to develop empathy when their own needs for love, nurturing, consistency, stability and predictability are being met. Children need to know that they can count on their parents and other caring adults to meet their physical, social and emotional needs. When all of these conditions are firmly in place, children grow into caring and thoughtful adolescents and adults (Dewar, 2009).

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