One of the most beautiful human gifts is the ability to express empathy for others. It signifies an important characteristic that sets us apart from other species, and has developed with us as a hallmark of humanity, going back to our evolutionary ancestors. Expressing empathy has been linked to feeling happier and having closer, more meaningful relationships with others. And though we are all born with the capacity to feel and express empathy, it takes years of practice to hone the skills needed to empathize with others.
The first and most basic way of increasing a child’s empathy is to model empathy yourself by understanding and meeting his or her needs. A secure attachment to a caregiver is an essential part of developing a child’s ability to empathize with others.
Modeling the act of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is one way to build the nurturer in your child. For example, during a conflict with a peer or sibling, you can model empathy by–for each child–commenting on how the other child might be feeling. This can help a child move past a black-or-white perspective on the situation–one that is often self-centered. A wronged child’s view that, “Tommy is mean. He took my shovel,” can be transformed into an exercise in empathy: “I wonder if Tommy is having a rough morning? Let’s go talk to him.”
Empathizing with someone who has made a mistake or feels regret can also be a powerful way to practice this important skill. Practicing forgiveness is just as important as apologizing for hurtful words or behavior. Modeling these behaviors make them more likely to be repeated. Children are always listening and are very aware of these dynamics; hearing one parent apologize to another after an argument or disagreement is a powerful example within the home.
Another way to boost the nurturer in your child is to help him identify feelings beyond happy, sad, angry. The emotional landscape rich and nuanced; consider a wide range of “feelings” words to shed light on a situation: frustrated, calm, surprised, envious, thankful, concerned, nervous, excited, discouraged, uneasy, embarrassed, suspicious, curious, enthusiastic, hopeful, brave, loving, and so many more. Children often struggle to identify what they’re feeling, which makes communicating their feelings–beyond whether they feel good or bad about a situation–extremely difficult. Helping them identify what emotion they feel and why gives children the linguistic tools needed to navigate increasingly complex interpersonal relationships.
One very effective way to encourage compassion in your child is to catch her being compassionate and praise her for her understanding, kind behavior. This can be as simple as stating, “Wow, that was so thoughtful and kind of you to offer your friend a hug and a tissue when she was crying. That must have made her feel very loved.” Helping others feels good, and this feeling can be enhanced when an adult in the child’s life notices! But, don’t overdo it. An adult constantly stepping in to praise a child for kindness quickly becomes a distraction and can ultimately detract from the natural situation and feelings involved.
Another important piece of fostering empathy is to limit screen time for young children. Aside from the many recent studies showing brain changes in young children who stare at screens for too many hours of the day, there is the commonsense knowledge that too much screen time takes time away from other important things, such as actual real-life social interactions with others. Face-to-face interactions with peers and family members provide a multitude of crucial opportunities for children to learn from conflict, as well as to develop empathy for others. Doctors recommend no more than one hour a day for children aged 2 – 5, and no screen time at all for infants 18 months and younger.
All of these acts seek to develop the whole child, to recognize in him the ability to affect positive change in the world, to see her as a global citizen, and to set up our world for a better future. As “…the child begins to become conscious of right and wrong, this not only as regards his own actions, but also the actions of others…..moral consciousness is being formed and this leads later to the social sense.” (The Absorbent Mind, p. 177)
For additional reading on how to cultivate empathy in children, read this.