Can you remember a time when you heard a baby cry, and suddenly a lot of other babies started crying? You may not have known it, but that was empathy.
What is empathy?
Empathy is when we try to understand someone's feelings from their perspective, and then we desire to help that person.9 Newborn babies react instantly to the distress of others by crying themselves. They are still too young to understand how to help others, but the empathy is there.
Empathy develops as a child's brain and thinking abilities develop, but parents can have a big influence on the resulting empathy their children have. If they encourage empathy, their children will be more empathic to others. If this is neglected, children get out of practice and may stop being so empathic.
Why is teaching empathy important?
If we want our children to feel empathy and to help others, we need to help them. While some development happens as a part of growing up, parents can increase their child's potential. The Family: A Proclamation to the World states, "Parents have a sacred duty to...teach their children to love and serve one another." (¶ 6) There are dramatic differences in children with empathy and without.
Children who don't show much empathy are more prone to violence, as well as other negative actions such as aggression or other ways of acting out.9 Children who do have empathy, on the other hand, are much more compassionate and helpful to other children.13 They are also more likely to share their toys or games with others. They have better social skills, get along better with other children, and even adjust better when starting school than children who show less empathy.1 All of these are good reasons for children to develop empathy.
What can parents do to help their children develop empathy?
For all Children
- Set an example. The best thing we can do as parents is to be an example.9 When your children act out, try to see things from their perspective and give them what they need. When they see you act with empathy, they will copy you. You can also show them by being empathic with other people in their life.
When your child throws a tantrum, for instance, because they want to do something on their own when they aren't big enough, try to understand their frustration. Explain to them that you know it must be hard for them. When we react in an empathic way instead of a commanding way, they will learn to do the same.
- Make a happy home. When a child feels safe and happy at home, knowing their parents love them, they are less self-centered. When their own needs are met, they are more likely to think of others before themselves.13 Tell your children you love them; listen to them and give them your attention. When parents listen, their children to have more empathy.5,8 Spend time with your children by playing games with them and reading to them. Being able to connect with others is a skill that helps them be empathic towards others.7
- Give service. One activity for any age to build empathy is to give service.6 Helping at a soup kitchen as a family helps your children see other ways of life|helping them to build empathy towards those who are less fortunate. You can also leave cookies anonymously for someone you know who has been down. The point is to encourage your children to help others; even if they do not feel empathy at first, it will grow as they do it.
- Spending time with animals. Another great thing for children is to have experience with animals. Learning compassion and caring for animals encourages the development of similar feelings in dealing with children.10 Even if they don't own a pet, feeding ducks or birds and talking about animals they see can help them learn empathy towards them.
- Encourage them. Positive reinforcement of empathy is also helpful.1 You can say, "I really appreciate how you shared your crackers with Sarah when she didn't have any. That was very nice of you." Helping the child to see that you approve of their behavior will encourage them to be empathic in the future.
- Take advantage of teaching moments. Sometimes children get in trouble because they find it hard to control their emotions and to understand the feelings of others.12 When they are upset, talk to them about what they feel. When they understand how they feel, you can then help them understand how someone else would feel in the same situation. If your son Jason gets in trouble for calling others names, ask him to think about how the other kids feel. Thinking about how others feel can help him feel more empathy for others as well as influence his behavior.
- Role play. You can help your kids practice empathy by using role-play. This is as simple as asking, "How would you feel if someone did that to you?" or telling them a story and asking them to describe the feelings of the characters.11
For younger children
- Read with them. A great way to do this is to find children's books that show empathy, and read the stories together.3 Then you can talk about it afterwards. Learning to recognize the feelings of other people is important to showing empathy.
Here are some examples of books that focus on empathy:
1. Priscilla McDoodlenutDoodleMcMae Asks Why? by Janet Mary Sinke
2. The Boy Who Grew Flowers by Jennifer Wojtowicz
3. We're All In the Same Boat by Zachary Shapiro
4. Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson
5. Always Room for One More by Sorche Nic Leodhas
6. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
Of course, there are many books out there that could teach empathy; these are just a few. Almost any story has a theme about helping others or being empathic. You can even look through the books your child already has to find books that teach empathy. By listening to any story, children learn to see a situation from another's point of view.
For older children
- Theater. Older children can get involved in plays or drama at school; impersonating other characters can help them learn to empathize with people from different walks of life.2 By playing Cinderella, for instance, children may see what it is like for those who have a less-than-perfect home situation. This can help them learn to care for others.
- Write poetry. This type of writing is powerful for expressing emotion, and it helps children to express what they feel when they write poetry. They can either write about their own feelings, or someone else's to try and understand how they feel. A group of students in a psychology class, for instance, wrote from the perspective of one who had a mental disorder.4 By trying to see the life of someone who was mentally ill from their perspective helped the students to feel more compassion for those with an illness.
Written by Kaitlin M. Miller, Research Assistant, and edited by Laura Padilla-Walker and Stephen F. Duncan, professors in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
- Ahn, H. J. (2005). Child care teachers' strategies in children's socialization of emotion. Early Child Development and Care, 175, 49-61.
- Akos, P. (2000). Building empathic skills in elementary school children through group work. Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 25, 214-233.
- Aram, D., & Aviram, S. (2009). Mothers' storybook reading and kindergartners' socioemotional and literacy development. Reading Psychology, 30, 175-194.
- Connon-Greene, P. A., Murdoch, J. W., Young, A., & Paul, C. (2005). Poetry: It's not just for English class anymore. Teaching of Psychology, 32, 215-221.
- Cornell, A. H., & Frick, P. J. (2007). The moderating effects of parenting styles in the association between behavioral inhibition and parent-reported guilt and empathy in preschool children. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 36, 305-318.
- Lundy, B. L. (2007). Service learning in life-span developmental psychology: Higher exam scores and increased empathy. Teaching of Psychology, 34, 23-27.
- Moreno, A. J., Klute, M. M., & Robinson, J. L. (2008). Relational and individual resources as predictors of empathy in early childhood. Social Development, 17, 613-637.
- Spinrad, T. L., & Stifter, C. (2006). Toddlers' empathy-related responding to distress: Predictions from negative emotionality and maternal behavior in infancy. Infancy, 10, 97-121.
- Swick, K. (2005). Preventing violence through empathy development in families. Early Childhood Education Journal, 33, 53-59.
- Thompson, K. L., & Gullone, E. (2003). Promotion of empathy and prosocial behavior in children through humane education. Australian Psychologist, 38, 175-182.
- Upright, R. (2002). To tell a tale: The use of moral dilemmas to increase empathy in the elementary school child. Early Childhood Education Journal, 30, 15-20.
- Webster-Stratton, C., & Reid, J. (2003). Treating conduct problems and strengthening social and emotional competence in young children: The Dina Dinosaur Treatment Program. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 11, 130-143.
- Zhou, Q., Eisenberg, N., Losoya, S. H., Fabes, R. A., Reiser, M., Guthrie, I. K.et al., (2002). The relations of parental warmth and positive expressiveness to children's empathy-related responding and social functioning: a longitudinal study. Child Development, 73, 893-915.