So much of the early years is planting in children the virtues we want to blossom over time. Love, kindness, and sincerity yield more easily when empathy is behind them. But in a very “me” centered culture, it can be a challenge to cultivate empathy in children. I find I have to be very intentional in steering my children’s hearts outward, and in how I teach them to think of others and consider others’ feelings. So today I’m sharing five specific ways to incorporate teaching empathy into your routines, teachings, and homes that will encourage children to be empathetic to others — no matter their age — and encourage you, as well!
1. Model empathy for your children.
It may be a parenting cliché, but it certainly rings true: Our children are always watching us. We are their first and most important teacher and we teach so much by example. Children notice if we listen to, respect, and understand the needs of those around us — and if we don’t. From how we treat servers in restaurants to how we care for friends in need, they’ll learn from how we interact with the people around us.
2. Show them how to put themselves in others’ shoes.
Ask children pointed questions to get them to look at something from another’s perspective. Ask them how their actions or actions of another would make them feel. Here are a few scenarios that could be turned into teachable moments:
- When they don’t want to share with siblings
- When they say something hurtful to a friend or sibling
- When they ask about a current event
- When they read about a hard topic or period in history
3. Make it a family habit to serve others.
We have a saying in our house: “When someone needs help, we try to help them.” That means being quick to help a little sister carry something heavy or fill up big sister’s water bottle when she’s running late.
Make it a habit for children to serve outside your home as well. Young children can help a neighbor by bringing their newspaper to their front porch or their mail, or a grandparent by helping put away dishes or watering plants. Serving the needs in our communities also helps cultivate empathy in children. A few years ago, I wrote a post about Becoming a Family that Serves that shows how being dedicated to one organization in service can be so impactful on children.
4. Read books that cultivate empathy.
Studies have shown that fiction books help people understand other’s emotions, which can help cultivate empathy. I would add that good fiction books can bring about teachable moments with your children that you might not normally have in everyday conversations. For example, The Hundred Dresses cultivates a lot of empathy in school-aged children and can help address bullying and teasing and how to stand up for other classmates. Great Joy is a one that encourages an outward focus at Christmas.
Books also allow us to expose our children to diverse places, people, and periods in history that they might not be aware of or exposed to. Twenty and Ten showed my children what living through the Holocaust as a Jewish child was like. Books can help children make connections with history and understand it better.
Reading aloud with my children through the years has yielded so many needed conversations along these lines. Make sure your home library is filled with rich tales both new and old, and read them stories that cultivate empathy for the characters who’ve overcome hard things!
With all of the books and resources available, it can be hard to know where to start when searching for books or adding to your home library. Our Classic Children’s Book Club is filled with rich literature that covers all manner of topics — be sure to check it out!
5. Show your child empathy.
Lastly, it’s important to show our children empathy, too. Their most important, firsthand experience with empathy begins at home, where we as parents have the opportunity to acknowledge their feelings, shoulder their experiences, and make them feel seen and loved.
Children need to be nurtured a lot when they are young. Kissing boo boos and wiping tears will transition to listening to their hurt feelings after school. And as they get older, you can use your time around the dinner table, in the car, or at bedtime to ask intentional questions about their day and what they’re experiencing at the moment. Here are a few examples of questions you might ask:
- What did you do or learn today that was interesting to you?
- Who made you feel loved today?
- What was the hardest thing that happened today?
What does teaching and encouraging empathy look like in your home? If you have any tried-and-true tips or resources, please share in the comments below!
Photo: Brenna Kneiss