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How to Foster Empathy in Children
We typically look at our parents as our superheroes for the better part of our childhood. We might play dress-up in their clothes, pretend to do the work they do and copy their way of speaking or interacting. Only when we are a bit older, do we usually understand they are just regular people who happen to be our parents. When our children imitate our movements during those early years, they are focused on our actions more than other people’s. They might notice a slight change in our moods or what we typically wear. If we get angry and this is out of character, they might show a slight fear response. This is the perfect time to work on modeling empathy for our children to foster this in their lives.
How do we teach our children to be empathic?
Being authentically empathic will be enough. If we show empathy and our children see our genuine connection and care for other people, animals and the environment, they will likely pick this up. With anything in life, the more consistent we are with the implementation, the better the outcome. And, in this case, the teaching of it. If we show our children that we understand another’s perspective, they might do the same when their younger sibling grabs a toy from them or snatches their snack. Their first reaction to snatching it back might evolve to a “my sister is probably hungry.” This might lead to your child preparing a snack and teaching your younger child how to request a bit more appropriately in the future.
Another idea to help foster empathy is to ask if your child wants to volunteer at animal shelters or other charitable organizations. There is always a need for volunteers at these charities, and having children’s energy is a bonus. They can help play with the animals at shelters or wash cages and feed the pets. I believe the act of serving and supporting an animal in need will intrinsically foster empathy for any being.
Some focus on the importance and significance of “life” on this planet could also support the teaching of empathy. If we teach our children that trees are needed for oxygen and plants help us with food production, that insects are part of the circle of life, we are showing our children how vital caring for life – our own and others’ – is.
In the past, empathy was seen as an inborn trait.
But according to Riess (2017), it can be taught and is mutable. You can teach your children to experience empathy by modeling this authentically throughout their lives. Volunteering with your children at an animal shelter could also be a great weekend activity for the entire family!
Riess H. (2017). The Science of Empathy. Journal of patient experience, 4(2), 74–77.