Loving parents have caring children. -Chinese proverb
“I’m sad for you, Mommy,” my son announced.
I had just leaned in to kiss my other son on the head at the same time he decided to jump up in the air, smashing his head into my lower lip. I winced in pain, and blood started to form inside my lip. Both boys were concerned and upset. They demonstrated empathy.
Children are born with the capacity to care for others and to understand their experiences, but this skill must be cultivated in order for us to witness its full expression. Raising kind, compassionate, empathic children is a goal for many parents and ideally might be a goal for our society at large, as our children are our next generation of leaders, caretakers, and decision-makers. How do we foster empathy among our youth? As the proverb above suggests, loving our children is a great start, but it might not be enough. Here are a few important ways to help you raise empathic children:
1. Model empathy. Be empathic toward your children and others around you. When someone is experiencing a feeling, put yourself in that person’s shoes (the definition of empathy) to try to understand what it really feels like to have that experience. If your child is scared, instead of saying, “Don’t be scared,” honor your child’s feelings and say, “This is really scary for you.” Do you remember how scary aspects of childhood were? Even adulthood can be scary! When your child cries, try to understand the feelings beneath the tears. Allow your child to cry. If your child is angry, instead of trying to wash away the frustration, sit with it (as long as their behavior isn’t destructive) and narrate what happened. Feel your child’s joy and excitement and get excited along with them. You can do the same things with other children – and adults. Modeling empathy toward others can have a significant impact in teaching this behavior and raising empathic children.
2. Encourage thinking and dialogues that promote a curious, compassionate stance. When reading a book or watching a movie, ask your child what they think the character is thinking or feeling. Why is Carolina mad or Noah upset? You can do the same when out-and-about. If you come across a baby that’s crying, ask your child why they think the baby is crying and what might help. Create conversations that foster compassionate thinking. I once had a conversation, driving around with my children in the rain, about where the ducks could go for shelter. Never mind that the ducks didn’t really need to seek cover, but we spent about 15 minutes brainstorming safe spots for our feathered friends. This kind of thinking strengthens our children’s empathy muscles, promoting care and concern for others and the ability to see the world through others’ minds, part of what Dr. Dan Siegel refers to as “mindsight.”
3. Teach them to care about animals. We don’t talk about ducks for no reason. When children learn to care for and be concerned about animals, they come to learn that all existence is valuable. They learn the importance of honoring the paths of others, human or animal. You don’t necessarily need to raise future veterinarians or animal ethicists (though there’s a lot of compassion in those two groups), but you do need to communicate the value of all life on earth. Same goes for plants and trees, our mountains, oceans, etc.
4. Volunteer with your kids. Teach them the importance of giving back. Talk to them about privilege – we all have it somehow, and it’s important to acknowledge and unpack. Empathic children see and understand the experiences of others, particularly those who have less privilege than they.
5. Reinforce empathic behavior. When you witness your child being kind, compassionate, or empathic toward others, point it out. Show your child that you value empathic behavior toward people, animals, and the world around us. Make sure that as you start to highlight other strengths and skills, such as achievement in various arenas, that you’re still attending to, and reinforcing, empathy and compassion.