7 Ways You Can Teach Your Children Empathy

What makes someone show kindness to others? Setting an example at home is a good place to start.

7 Ways You Can Teach Your Children Empathy

You might want to teach your children empathy. But sometimes they do it for you.

Take this example.

A little boy was hunched on the restaurant steps, sobbing because his balloon had blown away. Apart from telling him to ‘shut up and stop being silly’, his family – sitting at a nearby table – ignored him.

My friend’s daughter ran over from the garden area, where she was playing, and whispered in her mum’s ear. “That’s a lovely thought,” replied my friend, smiling.

We watched as her daughter ran over and offered the boy a small plastic toy from her pocket, a gift from an earlier visit to a fast-food outlet. He took it, drying his eyes.

Of course, the boy would have got over the loss of his balloon without this small act of kindness, but at a time when the world seems filled with so much hate and discord, moments like this shine brightly.

And it prompts the question – what can we do in our parenting to ensure our children grow up as empathetic, sympathetic adults? How can you teach your children empathy?

1Talk about it

In a life ruled by technology, one of the most important parenting guidelines we can follow is to promote face-to-face communication.

Educational psychologist Michele Borba, author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, believes emotional literacy is key when it comes to fostering empathy in our children.

“Digital-driven kids aren’t necessarily learning emotions when they pick emojis,” she says. “Make it a rule in your house to always look at the colour of the talker’s eyes; it will help your child tune in to the other person.”

Teaching children to identify their emotions from an early age is also important. Using emotional language such as “I see you’re really angry” or “I understand you feel upset” will help them appreciate their own feelings before they move on to recognising those of others.

You can also practice recognising emotions in the same way as we teach our kids their colours or numbers. When you’re out and about, point people out (discreetly of course!) and ask your child how they think that person is feeling. If you’re not comfortable with this, play a game between yourselves where you make a face and they guess which emotion it represents.

2Seize your opportunities

If you’re watching a television programme together or reading a book, this is a great chance to explore feelings and emotions.

Talk about situations where characters are being kind and empathetic, as well as hurtful and mean. Explore how they could have behaved differently and what led them to act in the way they did.

3Be the example

You are your child’s most important role model, so it’s not enough to tell them how they should behave – they need to see it, too. If you want them to show empathy, they need to experience it from you. If you want them to express their emotions, you must do the same.

This doesn’t mean giving in every time they’re upset about something – just acknowledging their feelings:

“I know you’re upset because you can’t have that cake, but we’ll be eating dinner in an hour and it’s really important you’re not full so you have room for a healthy meal. If you’re still hungry afterwards, maybe you can have some then.”

4Recognise their kindness

We praise our kids for doing well in a test or scoring a goal in a sports match, but it’s just as important to acknowledge it when they do something caring.

If you point out how their kind behaviour has made someone happy, they’ll begin to understand why empathy is a good and important quality. If they see themselves as caring, that’s how they’ll behave.

5Bring diversity into their lives

It’s important for children to understand people are different – whether through culture, ethnicity, religion, appearance or ability.

Expose your child to as many differences as possible, celebrating the diversity they see in the world – from the books you read to the restaurants you visit. Don’t be afraid to answer their questions and discuss experiences.

6Admit when you’ve got it wrong

None of us is perfect. There’ll be times when you react badly – perhaps you’ll be cross with the checkout assistant who makes a mistake as she rings up your groceries.

If your kids are with you, make a point later to acknowledge you could have behaved with more empathy – perhaps she was stressed because she had a long queue of customers, or she might have had some bad news.

7Make kindness part of family life

When you’re eating dinner together at night, ask everyone in the family to share a kind thing they did that day. It could become part of your evening routine, and will make your children more aware of opportunities to show kindness and empathy in their everyday lives.

If there’s conflict between siblings, bring it out in the open. Talk about how it could have been handled differently to avoid people’s feelings being hurt. Be clear this isn’t about blaming or shaming – it’s to help them understand.

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