Simple Ways to Nurture Empathy in Our Children

by | Aug 6, 2009 | Character and Moral Intelligence

Michele Borba

REALITY CHECK: One strong characteristic of morally intelligent children is that they are empathic and concerned about others. An important point to remember is that while our kids are born with the potential for empathy and generosity, those traits aren’t 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.

Empathy—the ability to feel the emotions of another—is the foundation of moral intelligence. This first moral virtue is what sensitizes our kids to different points of view and increases their awareness of others’ ideas and opinions. Empathy is what enhances humanness, civility, and morality. Empathy is the emotion that alerts a child to another person’s plight and stirs his conscience. It is what moves children to be tolerant and compassionate, to understand other people’s needs, to care enough to help those who are hurt or troubled. A child who learns empathy will be much more understanding and caring, and will usually be more adept at handling anger.

Here are a few proven ways to nurture your child’s empathy:

  • To teach kids empathy, you must show kids empathy. The best moments to teach empathy are usually not planned-they just happen. Capitalize on those moments to help your child understand the power that “feeling with others” can have.

  • Expand your child’s emotional intelligence by asking often, “How do you feel?” Children must be able to identify different emotional states in themselves before they can become sensitive to the feelings of others.

  • Know what your kids are watching and listening to: protect them from cruel, degrading, desensitizing images that can corrupt their empathic development

  • 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.

  • If you want your child to feel for others-expect and demand your child to feel for others.

  • Tune up your empathic behaviors so your child regularly sees you show concern for other people’s “hurts and needs.” Then act on your concerns to comfort others so that your child can copy your actions.

  • Provide opportunities for your child to experience different perspectives and views in your community, by visiting nursing homes, homeless shelters, centers for the blind, pediatric wards, soup kitchens, veteran’s hospitals, and political campaign headquarters. The more your child experiences different perspectives, the more likely she will be able to empathize with others whose needs and views differ from hers.

  • Boost the concept of gratitude into your daily living. We seem to have a lot of “gimme” kids these days and it’s because they’ve learned that their parents will oblige their every whim. So don’t! Establish guidelines and stick to them. The fact is children who are more empathic are less materialistic. My girlfriend noticed her mother-in-law was overindulging her kids in material gifts and finally told her that was not the kind of kids she wanted to raise. She asked her to please reduce their number of presents and put the money instead in their college fund. The key here is the mom determined how she wanted her kids to turn out, and then consciously begin raising them that way.

  • Stretch your child to think about other people’s concerns and needs.

  • Monitor your child’s media diet. A constant exposure to cruel and violent acts can numb a child’s heart.

  • 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. It builds empathy.

  • Any time your child acts unkindly, use it as an opportunity to help him become more sensitive 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. How would YOU feel?” “Not asking Daddy if he wanted to watch a TV show was unkind. How would you feel?”

  • Try to find natural ways to help her “give” to others so she understands the joy giving can bring. Start by doing it yourself and having her watch and do it with you. Here are a couple of ideas: “The neighbor is sick; let’s make an extra bowl of soup and bring it to her.” “Daddy is so tired; let’s surprise him and stack the newspapers so he doesn’t have to. ” Make giving natural and fun but help her learn to GIVE.

Our children are often exposed to an unsettling world of violence, drugs, cruelty, and incivility; empathy may be the best antidote. By learning to show empathy to others, our kids can help create a more tolerant, peaceful world.

Michele Borba’s latest book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries (Jossey-Bass) is in stores in two weeks and is available for order now:

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