Nurturing Empathy In Children

by | Jan 10, 2010 | Character and Moral Intelligence

Moral IQ Tip: Children are likely to be more empathic if they understand why empathy is important and how it affects others. So point out the positive impact empathy can have on others in daily experiences.

One strong characteristic of morally intelligent children is that they are empathic. These kids can identify with and feel other person’s concerns. What a miraculous ability! To me there is no greater virtue: empathy is the foundation of your child’s moral intelligence. Boosting it in our kids would make violence and cruelty unthinkable options. Tragically, empathy is a vastly missing commodity in our human race.

An important point to remember is that while our kids are born with the potential for empathy it is far from guaranteed. Researchers have discovered that a strong commonality of those kids who acquire them is how they were raised. That means parents can be enormously influential in helping their kids be concerned about others needs by prioritizing it in their homes. It’s a slow, gradual evolution, but if you are consciously boosting those traits as a parent now, chances are much stronger you’ll have success and your child will develop those traits.

One of the easiest ways to nurture empathy is by gently stretching your child to think about other people’s concerns and needs. And make that premise a part of your daily parenting endeavors. Just look for natural opportunities that materialize throughout the day: at the playgroup, in car pool, while shopping, at the dinner table. If you are just a bit more intentional in looking for empathy-building moments, you’ll see they’re see there are endless possibilities. Then capitalize on them!

Once you find the empathy-building moment what do you do? Here are three secrets (from my book Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to do the Right Thing) that might help you in your quest. Use them anytime and anyplace– but use them often. They will help your child “get into the other person’s shoes” so your son or daughter and learn to step in and learn to “feel how the other person feels.” That notion is the foundation for those glorious homespun virtues of humanity such as respect, kindness, tolerance, justice, fairness and altruism.

  • Have her switch roles. Role playing helps a child imagine the feelings of others, so it builds empathy. The next time there’s a conflict between your child and a friend (or between you and your child) ask her to stop and think how the other person would feel if the roles were reversed. Then ask her to talk about the problem AS IF SHE WERE THE OTHER PERSON. “What would the other person say and do?” If she is very young, it is helpful to use puppets so that each puppet can represent the person in the conflict. Parents can ask older kids to “switch roles” to try seeing the situation from the other person’s perspective.
  • Ask often: How would YOU feel? An easy way to nurture empathy is to ask kids to ponder how another person feels. As opportunities arise, parents can pose the question using situations in books, TV, and movies as well as real life. Each question forces kids to stop and think about other people’s concerns and nurtures sensitivity to their needs.

  • Call attention to insensitive behavior. Any time your child acts unkindly, use it as an opportunity to sensitive her to the feelings of other people. Just point out the impact of her actions: “Telling Bert to leave because you wanted to play with Sally was inconsiderate. “Not asking Daddy if he wanted to watch a TV show was unkind. How would you feel if Daddy did that to you?”

To teach kids empathy, you must show kids empathy. The best moments to teach empathy are not planned—they just happen. Capitalize on those moments to help your child understand the power that “feeling with others” can have. Just remember: Using simple parenting secrets can make real differences on your children’s lives—especially when you choose ones that matter most in raising good kids then commit to making them become a habit in your daily parenting.