Nurturing Children’s Empathy

by | Sep 13, 2012 | Character and Moral Intelligence, Empathy and Kindness

Children are hard-wired for empathy, but unless it is nurtured the trait may lie dormant. Parenting advice based on research that nurture our children’s capacity to feel for others

One Experience Can Mobilize Heart

Several years ago, our youngest son brought a note homefrom his teacher asking for parent volunteers to chaperone a class field trip. His teacher, Cindy Hollinger, was encouraging her students to give up their Saturday morning to participate in a race called “Lauren’s Run” sponsored by the City of Hope.

The event was held in the memory of Lauren Zagoria, a three-year old child who died from cancer. Each racer would pay an entrance fee of a few dollars, and all the profits would go to pediatric cancer research.

Volunteering to drive to that event was one of the easiest decisions I’ve made.

I listened to each of my young passengers talk about the upcoming race. They also spent time trying to imagine what it would be like to be only three years old and have cancer. Their teacher had posed wonderful questions:

“How would you feel if your little sister was in a bed with all those tubes?” “How would you feel if you were Lauren’s mother and you knew there wasn’t a cure for your daughter?”

Those “how would you feel” questions stoked heavy discussions in my backseat. Each child agreed that they couldn’t imagine anything so horrible.

As we drove into the parking lot, each child was met by an adult volunteer thanking them for taking time to help children with cancer get better. I watched the children’s faces brighten as they recognized their efforts were appreciated and respected.

I also wished more children could have shared the experience that day. So many families were there running together for Lauren.

The race was held and the children ran, trophies were awarded, a beautiful brunch was served, and all the children were thanked again for their time. Listening to my young passenger’s conversation on the drive home was the greatest affirmation on why adults should encourage kids to serve others.

“It was fun,” they said, “because we helped Lauren.”

Another child expressed everyone’s sentiments, “Maybe now other kids won’t have to feel so sad and hurt so much.”

And they all agreed they still couldn’t imagine anything so horrible than what happened to Lauren.

Before I dropped them back on their doorsteps, every child in my car pledged to run again the next year. And they did.

Those children exemplified what it means to have empathy. That day–just for those few hours–they were able to put themselves in Lauren’s shoes and imagine how she and her family felt. That day, the students ran not for themselves, but to help Lauren. And, that day they won the best kind of victory: the glorious inner triumph of knowing that their caring actions can make a difference.

Helping our children appreciate other people’s feelings and needs cannot be taught in a few short lessons. Your child gradually moves from an egocentric “Always thinking about me” perspective to one in which he not only cares about the other person, but can feel and understand the other person’s point of view. And you the best news is that can help stretch that growth.

3 Simple Ways to Boost Children’s Empathy

Research tells us empathy is a trait we can develop in our kids. Real and meaningful experiences are always the best way to activate a child’s heart. Look for opportunities for your child to give to others. Meanwhile, here are three proven techniques to help children learn to feel for others and develop a stronger, more caring heart.

Point Out Other People’s Feelings

Point out the facial expressions, posture and mannerisms of people in different emotional states as well as their predicaments is beneficial. Doing so helps your child tune into other people’s feelings. As occasions arise, explain your concern and what clues helped you make your feeling assessment: “Did you notice Sally’s face when you were playing today?  I was concerned because she seemed worried about something. Maybe you should talk to her to see if she’s okay.” Soon your child will be able to look for facial cues and act on them. “Grandma looks sad. Maybe she needs a hug. I’ll go give her one.”

Switch Roles to “Feel” the Other Side

Michael was a student of mine who had difficulty understanding anyone else’s feelings but his own. One day he hurt another student’s feelings with his teasing, but I just couldn’t get him to understand how sad he’d made the other child feel.

I spotted a wire hanger on the floor, quickly bent it into a large circle shape and improvised: “Michael, stick your head through the hole and pretend you’re Stevie and feel just like Stevie feels. I’ll be Michael. ‘I started the roleplay: Stevie, your haircut makes you look dumb.’ How do you feel, Stevie?”

By slowly making Michael switch places and pretend to be Stevie, he finally grasped Stevie’s hurt. I used a wire hanger as a prop for Michael to use in role playing the other child’s point of view, but you can help your young child act out the other person’s perspective using puppets, dolls, or even toy action figures.

As kids get older you can have them actually “Step into Daddy’s shoes” or “Sit in my chair,” to help them “feel from the other side.”

Eventually they’ll need only a prompt:, “Switch places and take the other person’s side. How would you feel if you were in her place?

Imagine Someone’s Feelings

One way to help your child connect with the feelings of others is to have her imagine how the other person feels about a special situation.

Suppose your child just wrote a get well card to her Grandma. Use the moment to help her recognize her grandmother’s reaction when she receives the card by pretending she’s the other person.

“Imagine you’re Grandma right now. You walk to the mailbox, and when you open it you find this letter. How will you feel?”

You later can expand the imagination game to include people your child has not personally met: “Imagine you’re a new student and you’re walking into a brand new school and don’t know anyone. How will you feel?”

Asking often, “How would you feel?” helps kids understand the feelings and needs of other people.

Today more than ever, as our kids are often exposed to an unsetting world of violence, drugs, bullying and insensitivity, we must emphasize and nurture empathy. Children are hard-wired to care about others. But studies also show that unless we nurture it, that glorious component of humanity will lie dormant. I’m also convinced that understanding how someone else feels may well be the antidote that will help our children live in a more tolerant, compassionate world. It’s also our best hope for reducing bullying and cruelty.  The best news is empathy can be cultivated in our children.

What better legacy to give your child: the gift of a strong and caring heart that you have nurtured? It’s a gift that will keep on giving—your children will pass on to their children-and to theirs.

And you have touched eternity.

Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert