Barbara watched her son, Aaron, and his neighbor friend, Brent, play basketball. Just then the phone rang. Aaron ran to answer it and was back within seconds telling Brent, “Hey, Jack just called. He wants me to come over and roller blade with him. You have to go home now.” And Barbara saw her son run to grab his skates while Brent sadly walk home. She was furious and wondered, “How can he be so thoughtless?” She turned to tell Aaron just how sad he made Brent feel, then thought differently. “That’s the problem,” she told herself. “I’m always telling him how he makes others feel, but he still hasn’t figured out he hurts others. I need a way to increase his empathy.”
Sensitizing children to how someone else feels is a significant and serious enterprise. Children cannot do this alone–they must be supported, supervised, and encouraged to develop the skills of empathy. And research proves that the kinds of discipline we use with our children can stretch or shrink their empathy muscles.
Martin Hoffman, a world-renown researcher and moral development authority, aimed one of his most influential studies on empathetic children. He wanted to determine the type of discipline their parents most frequently used with their children, and the finding was clear:
The most common discipline technique parents of highly considerate children use is reasoning with them about their uncaring behavior.
The parents’ “reasoning lessons” helped sensitize their children to the feelings of others, and realize how their actions may affect others. It’s an important point to keep in mind in those moments when we confront our own kids for any uncaring deed.
Parents play an important role in helping their children become more responsive to the feelings of others. I developed an acronym called “CARE” that I’ve shared over the years with hundreds of parents in dozens of countries. The four parts in the CARE Lesson that follow help turn children’s uncaring moments into teaching tools that sensitizes them to the feelings and needs of others and helps plant the seeds of empathy. It’s easy to use and will not only stop an inappropriate behavior but also help kids recognize the impact of their actions on others.
C – Call Attention to the Uncaring Behavior
Use the first part of CARE Lesson any moment your child acts unkindly. It’s an opportunity to sensitize her to the feelings of other people’s and the disastrous affect unkind actions have on others: it’s the first step to developing empathy. As soon as you see an uncaring behavior, call attention to it! We’re always more successful in helping children change their behavior when we “nip it in the bud”, before it has a chance to escalate and become a habit..
A word of caution: this is not the time to give a long and lengthy sermon on the “Golden Rule” (sermons generally turn kids off anyway). This is the time to calmly name and briefly describe the child’s uncaring behavior. Here’s how to call attention to uncaring behaviors:
Adult: “Telling Brent to leave because you wanted to play with Jack was inconsiderate.”
Adult: “Telling your sister she is ugly is not friendly.”
Adult: “Not sharing your toys with your friend was uncaring.”
A – Ask, “How Would You Feel?”
Now that you’ve pointed out the unkind behavior, help your child understand why the action was unacceptable. Ideally, we want our children to think about how their behavior affected the other person, but empathy does not always come naturally. Like most skills, it needs fine tuning and practice. A good place to begin is by asking questions that help children think about how they would feel if someone had done the behavior to them. You might ask:
Adult: “Aaron, how would you feel if Brent told you to leave, so he could play with Jack?”
Adult: “If someone said that to you, how would you feel right now?”
Adult: “Would you want to be treated like that?”
R – Recognize the Action’s Consequence
The third part is to help children put themselves in someone else’s shoes, and think how it feels to be the recipient of uncaring. Feeling from another person’s perspective is often difficult for children, but by using insightful questions we can gently guide them in considering the other person’s feelings–which is the foundation of empathy. Here’s a few questions that help children realize the impact of their uncaring behavior:
Adult: “Switch places and pretend you’re Brent, how do you feel right now?”
Adult: “Put yourself in his shoes. Tell me what you think he’s thinking.”
Adult: “What do you think the other person would like to say to you?”
E – Express and Explain your Disapproval of the Uncaring Behavior
Finally, explain why you consider the child’s behavior to be unacceptable and “uncaring.” Simply, “plainly explain” what concerns you about the behavior, and how you feel about uncaring actions. This is the moment you make sure your child clearly understands what is wrong about the behavior, and why you disapprove. And you’ve helped your child shift his focus from himself to considering how his actions can impact other people.
Adult: “I’m very concerned when I see you treating your friends without considering their feelings. I expect you to treat your friends the same way you’d want to be treated.”
Adult: “I am upset when you talk in that tone to me. It is disrespectful and uncaring, and I expect you to treat people with respect.”
The true parenting challenge is to use those unplanned moments when a child’s behavior is unacceptable as a learning tool to help your child develop empathy. And that’s always the best kind of lesson: one that helps the child discover for herself why she should be kind and realize her uncaring actions may affect others by understanding how the other person feels.
I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books. You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news about child development.
You can also find dozens of research-based and practical tips to raise strong kids from the inside out in my book, Building Moral Intelligence. This blog is adapted from the chapter on Empathy.