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As my red-faced and screaming son Max recovered from a nasty fall at playgroup, his friend Owen watched with concern, repeating his name over and over. It was a sweet sign of empathy, a feeling that can be difficult for kids to grasp.
Empathy, the sensitivity to how others are feeling, is an “essential part of being human,” says Maurice J. Elias, a psychology professor and director of the Social-Emotional Learning Lab at Rutgers University. “It really is a learned and learnable skill. Parents want to nurture empathy in their kids.”
How do you teach your kids to be empathetic? While you don’t need to set aside time for “empathy training,” it’s important to model it in your daily life, says Luba Falk Feigenberg, research director of Making Caring Common at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. “It’s not actually something we do on top of everything else. It’s something we do as part of everything else.”
Here’s how to instill empathy in your kids from infancy to grade school and beyond.
Babies are born with the seeds of empathy. “Empathy is one of the reasons why infants smile at their parents shortly after birth,” Elias says. That captivating grin helps parents cope with long months of sleepless nights and constant diaper changes.
Despite a baby’s instinctive understanding, experts say parents should continue to encourage the development of empathy in their little ones. One of the earliest techniques you can use is modeling the behavior yourself.
Even though your baby can’t speak and doesn’t understand the nuances of empathy, she’ll watch and take cues from how you react in everyday situations. Do you snap at the DMV clerk after an hour-long wait? Or do you accept his apology with a smile?
Another way to promote empathy in infants is to point out emotions and feelings. When your baby suddenly bursts into tears because another child is sobbing (a precursor to empathy development), use the opportunity to connect words to how she’s feeling, suggests Manuel Jimenez, MD, an attending developmental and behavioral pediatric physician at Children’s Specialized Hospital in New Brunswick. “The most salient learning experiences [are] in real life.”
“Me” and “mine” might be your toddler’s favorite words, but he’s beginning to understand that others have feelings too, Elias says. “By the time a kid is two and able to talk, he should be able to tell you how someone is feeling when you point to a picture.”
Elias suggests “reading the pictures” to help toddlers increase their empathy vocabulary and feel recognition. Don’t just rely on the words; use the illustrations to explain what different facial expressions and body postures might mean.
Use the language of feelings in daily life, too. “Feelings are so much a part of us that we don’t necessarily think it’s important to use words,” Elias says. “But the language really does matter.”
It’s not too early to label your young child’s feelings, Feigenberg says. An example of what to say during an all-too-common toddler meltdown: “I see you’re upset about not getting the toy you want. Let’s try to figure out another toy you can play with.”
Starting around age four or five, preschoolers can begin to put themselves in another’s shoes, Jimenez says. Instead of focusing only on emotions, parents of preschoolers can discuss the cognitive side of empathy. What might your friend be thinking and feeling? What can you do to help her feel better?
Parents can help kids understand that feelings are connected to actions by starting conversations with a simple prompt that’s applicable in both positive and negative situations like: “How do you think she felt when you did that?” And the follow-up, suggests Elias, can be: “How could you tell?” Ask these questions as things happen. For example, when your child won’t share her snack or she offers up her spot on the swings at the park.
As your school-age kid begins to discover his place in the world, encourage him to think of himself as an ethical person, Feigenberg says. When everyday ethical dilemmas arise, help him navigate the situation as his best self. If he aspires to be a good friend and leader, for example, how should he respond when his friend is being teased?
Empathy’s a skill that can be honed into the adolescent and young adult years, Jimenez says. As kids get older, parents should use natural experiences rather than forced situations as teaching tools. The time to discuss empathy is when it’s relevant to the present situation. For instance, talk about empathy when your daughter is thrilled to have made the soccer team, but has a best friend who didn’t make the cut. “Kids develop at their own pace,” Jimenez says, “and [empathy] is often a skill that takes time to master.”
Christina Hernandez Sherwood is a freelance writer covering parenting and health. She lives in Collingswood with her husband and three-year-old son.