Empathy is the feeling of understanding and sharing the experience and emotions of another person.
It’s a powerful quality which urges us to treat others with kindness and compassion.
Children are born with the capacity for empathy but it must be nurtured and encouraged.
Empathy is a big concept for small children to understand, let alone consciously practice.
Yet it’s an important one to learn, especially in today’s society, where children are facing online bullying and more doom and gloom than ever before.
The sooner you start teaching your child about empathy and the more you model kindness, the better the chances you will raise an empathetic child.
Address Your Child’s Needs
This is a really great place to start with teaching empathy. Your three year old is having a tantrum in the supermarket and you can feel your patience wearing thin.
Instead of letting go of your feelings, show them you understand and empathise. You can say ‘You must need to have a rest. I get grumpy when I’m tired too. Let’s go home and have a rest’.
This can be challenging in today’s busy lifestyle but it’s always a good reminder to show empathy when you parent, and show your child you are considering their feelings and respecting their needs.
This might be when you are getting frustrated with your child for interrupting or demanding your attention when you can’t give it immediately. Take a moment to stop before you snap, process your own feelings, then react in a calm way. By demonstrating emotional regulation, we’re teaching our children to manage their own emotions before reacting, to keep empathy open.
Talk About Feelings
Starting from a young age, it helps children to care about the feelings of others if they are aware of their own feelings. Providing them with an emotional vocabulary gives them the chance to discuss their feelings and become emotionally literate.
Point out feelings in books, movies, in other people and help your child to identify the emotion and the cues for that emotion (happy/smile, sad/tears, angry/frown).
Children also enjoy learning through play. Role-play feelings with toys, using different situations and tones of voice (happy, concerned, angry, frustrated).
From a place of love, many parents try to make sure their children don’t experience any negative emotions. Yet this doesn’t teach children that negative emotions are ok to have, it’s how we react and cope with all of our feelings that matters.
Walk The Talk
Parents are their child’s first teacher. Demonstrate empathy every chance you have and you’re well on the way to raising an empathetic child.
When things aren’t going well in your day, it’s easy to snap and be negative about everything going wrong. Often we put the blame on others for how we’re feeling too.
Our children are watching and start to learn these behaviours. A parent who regularly gets angry at other drivers on the road might think they’re in the right until they hear their small child start to use the same language and tone when things go wrong.
Choose to see and respond to things in a positive light and own your feelings. It’s helpful for children to hear you say ‘that wasn’t very kind of me’ and talk about how you could’ve done it differently.
It’s tempting to wrap your children up in cotton wool and protect them from everything bad in the world. But the huge jump in access to information means children are more likely to hear about negative events.
If we talk to our children about tragic events or social problems then we’re creating a dialogue about empathy. By giving them the opportunity to talk about how they feel and how it affects them, we give children the tools to grow into empathetic adults, who are more likely to make a change.
See Their Empathy
Encourage your child to be empathetic by reminding them when they are kind, both in that moment and at other times.
Praising your child for their consideration, courage and kindness reminds them of their inner qualities. This is true when they try and things don’t go as well as they’d like, talk about what could’ve been done differently.
Talk to your child about the sort of person they want to become. Focus on character qualities rather than occupation, which helps them to see how they will affect others and what they believe is important.
At a very young age, children are curious and begin to point out differences they notice in other people and the world around them. They also begin to observe what their parents value and how we respond to differences.
Being inclusive is an important part of raising an empathetic child. Inclusion is being part of an environment which embraces diversity and community.
Most parents will have experienced a situation where their young child has pointed out a difference they can see in someone else, such as being in a wheelchair or skin colour. Children are observers and commentators, and it’s better to discuss difference as a positive aspect, than to be embarrassed and shut down the conversation.
Demonstrate inclusion by being open minded about people who look, act and think differently to you. Young children may make statements about others and provide the opportunity for you to open their minds to diversity and empathy:
Child: Sarah is a girl because she wears pink
You: Boys can wear pink too
Child: No, just girls wear pink
You: Pink is a colour, anyone can wear it. I’ve seen Ryan wear pink and he’s a boy.
Encourage your child to ask a lonely or sad child at the park if they want to play or offer to share a snack to a playmate if they’re hungry. These small acts of kindness are inclusive and teach your child to consider other people as no different to themself.
A great way to demonstrate empathy is to do something positive for others. Teach your child to consider other people’s feelings and what they might need to help change their mood or feel better.
This can be as simple as always smiling at people, taking a shopping trolley back for a busy mother, or visiting elderly people who are alone.
Or it can look like knitting beanies for sick babies in hospital or collecting food and blankets for the local animal shelter.
Giving your children a chance to feel the effects of kindness and empathy inspires them to do it more. Creating a sense of community and connection means they grow up to be the drivers of change – creating a more positive and compassionate world.
Sam McCulloch lives in Melbourne with her husband and three children. She is also a writer, birth educator and doula, advocating for birth options and postnatal care. Sam believes in the importance of building a village so no parent is left behind or feels unsupported.