When we think about teaching children empathy, a few things usually come to mind. First and foremost, empathy is about being able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and consider their perspective. This is one of the core concepts of empathy, but empathy, as an emotional intelligence skill, is more complex and nuanced than just this alone.
There are plenty of people in the world who can understand and consider the perspectives of other people, but choose to use that information in order to manipulate and control others, rather than to gain understanding with good intent. Teaching children empathy is more than just teaching them how to understand other people’s perspectives. It’s about teaching our children how to understand others to the point we are able to influence others in a positive way while also allowing others to influence our own perspectives. This is why teaching empathy and compassion to children at the same time is important. Empathy is a multi-faceted concept comprised of three main components:
—Feeling another individual’s emotions (affective empathy)
—Reasoning about another person’s perspective (cognitive empathy)
—Wanting to help (empathic concern)
With that in mind, let’s take a look at 6 ways to teach empathy and compassion to children that can help us better understand how these different components of empathy come into play, and how we can become more empathetic and teach empathy to those around us.
1. Caught Stealing
For all the parents out there, the idea that empathy is learned and not inherent knowledge is nothing new. Many kids need to learn to share or not play rough simply because they don’t understand how their actions affect others. Our very own creative director, Dan Tigert, has a great story about his four-year-old son, Fields, that perfectly illustrates the value of teaching empathy and compassion to children through real-world experiences.
Fields came home from school one day with something that wasn’t his. Dan noticed a peculiar note mixed in amongst his things that looked like something his teacher had written for herself. When he asked Fields about it, he did so with an understanding and calm tone, as he wanted Fields to have a chance to explain himself. Fields didn’t lie or play dumb. In fact, he immediately owned up to taking it from his teacher’s desk. So if Fields knew he’d taken something that didn’t belong to him, what had happened?
It turned out that Fields had no idea that he was not allowed to take things without asking in the first place. He simply saw something he liked and took it home with him. There was no malicious intent, just pure naiveté. The way that Dan turned this into an excellent teaching moment and lesson in empathy was by introducing the word, stealing, to Fields and explaining how it can affect others negatively. He then asked Fields how he would feel if his teacher took his things without asking, further explaining that this would be called “stealing.”
Fields was able to put himself in that hypothetical situation and replied that it wouldn’t make him happy. He began to understand how stealing negatively affects the person whose belongings are taken and he returned the note to the teacher with an apology and a newfound understanding of affective empathy.
2. The Berenstain Bears
One great way to teach children empathy and compassion is through children’s books and entertainment. As I always say, kids learn best when they’re having fun. The first thing that immediately came to my mind was the Berenstain Bears book, The Berenstain Bears and the Trouble With Grownups. There is seemingly no topic too complex or abstract that the bears won’t tackle and how they approach empathy in this story is so amazing. The children and the parents do the classic children’s book plot line of a role-reversal.
Similar to the movies Freaky Friday, The Parent Trap, or the book The Prince and the Pauper, these stories all revolve around people with vastly different backgrounds and lives switching places for a short time in order to literally experience what it’s like living in someone else’s shoes. In this particular Berenstain Bear story, the kids and the parents both swap places so that the kids can see that it’s not as easy being grown up as they thought.
When it comes time to take out the trash, cook dinner, go shopping, and mow the lawn, things really start to unravel. It’s a great lesson that we don’t always know how difficult other people have it and how easy it is to sometimes blindly wish we had someone else’s life. Brother and Sister bear think that Mama and Papa bear are too bossy but they gain empathic understanding of the parental roles once they pretend to be them.
Another great book for teaching children empathy is the book Wonder by RJ Palacio. I did an article on the movie adaptation and I highly suggest checking it out here.
3. Sharing Dilemmas
Talking to children about empathy in hypothetical terms can only go so far. Many children are hands-on learners, especially at a young age, and if they don’t have the chance to see something with their own eyes, it can be very difficult to understand it deeply. That’s why providing opportunities to practice empathy and discussing empathy in terms of real life actions and decisions is the best way to form concrete examples.
If something comes up, talk it through with the young ones and ask them what they think the right thing to do would have been. Run through your own empathy dilemmas with them. Let’s say, for example, your child has a difficult decision they have to make. Maybe two of their friends don’t like each other very much and your child knows a conflict will arise if they are both invited to their birthday party. Talk it over with them and help them consider everyone’s perspective.
Emphasize that there’s no right answer and that the decision is ultimately up to them, while mentoring them through it and providing all the available resources you can offer. Children learn so much from brainstorming possible solutions with their parents. Whether that results in a decision to contact the other kids’ parents to try to arrange a truce or something else, be your child’s coach through this real life lesson in empathy.
4. Role Modeling to Teach Children Empathy
I’ll repeat this one for those of you who are here for the first time, but for the rest of you, you’ll already know what I’m about to say. Children learn from watching adults. If you fail to model being aware of others, a prelude to learning the skill of empathy, your children will notice and they will repeat your behaviors. The way to begin role-modeling others-awareness, an emotional intelligence competency is rather than treating others like they’re invisible, acknowledge others. When you practice good manners to those in the service industry, when you buy holiday gifts for the janitor at work, when you say hello to the school’s crossing guard every single day, you are modeling the foundational skill of empathy.
These are just a few ideas, but think about how many people you see repeatedly and how many you choose to ignore every day. Extending a hand to others on a consistent basis, when our children are present in mind and body, helps our children learn what others-awareness and ultimately, empathy, looks like in the real world and how they can practice these skills themselves.
5. Considering Points of View
Oftentimes, we have conflicts with others not because we dislike each other or wish ill will but because our perspectives of the same things are vastly different. Finding common ground and understanding where these perspectives come from is part of teaching children empathy and can lead to massively improved conflict resolution. Think of how many times you’ve had the same arguments with the same people. Wouldn’t life be easier if you could just agree to disagree instead of repeating the same arguments?
Teaching our children that there are so many things in life that will add fuel to the fire, many of which are avoidable, will help them become more skilled in the areas of empathy and relationship management. Children are able to learn that it’s up to us to be able to understand where people come from and appeal to their emotions. Conversations with our children about the fact that others will not always see things our way and teaching them that considering the other person’s point of view allows people to be able to agree to boundaries and ground rules, thus getting along with those around us.
6. Internal Conflict and Understanding Emotions
As with all of my articles geared towards improving childhood EI, there are so many strategies so it’s up to you to figure out which ones work best for your family. It’s a long process, but it is so rewarding and you will be so proud of your child when they end up becoming even more empathetic than you 🙂
Teaching children empathy and compassion is all about displaying empathy ourselves. If we are practicing empathy, we are running through the three definitions of empathy every day. When we see others feeling scared or afraid, we are able to consider it from their perspective so well that we begin to feel that emotion ourselves. When someone tells us a story about their life, we don’t immediately consider what we would’ve done in their place in order to receive a more desirable outcome. We instead understand why they made the decisions they did at the time and are able to fully connect with that person instead of judging them.
And lastly, when people do open up to us and share their perspectives, do we truly listen to them and make meaningful changes, even when it goes against what we might feel is best or do we shut them down and value our own perspective above all else? Teaching children empathy is all about skirting these fine lines and finding the best ways to make sure our own perspectives are able to sustainably balance alongside other perspectives.
That wraps this article up. Empathy is not something we can discover overnight, but by using these tips and combinations of them augmented to fit your family’s best interests, you can begin to do the work. Let me know in the comments below what you think about these 6 ways to teach empathy and compassion to children and also how your family practices empathy. This is the season for being kind and relating to others so I’d love to hear all your stories!