Originally published by Jennifer Lea Reynolds in her Human Kind column, Psychology Today online, September 23, 2019.
Empathy, or the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and express genuine concern and/or interest about their feelings or life circumstance, is a key factor behind general human decency. So says Edward (Ned) Hallowell, M.D., a board-certified child, adult psychiatrist and thought leader who founded The Hallowell Centers in Boston MetroWest, New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle. “Empathy is the cornerstone of civilization, if you will,” he says. “It’s what separates us from being selfish beasts so that we instead care about—and take into account—the feelings of another person.”
For a child to grow up with these desirable attributes, however, doesn’t come naturally. Dr. Hallowell explains that selfish behaviors, on the other hand, do. “Selfish behaviors come naturally,” he says. “Empathy takes practice.” The good news for parents seeking to raise empathetic children—and in turn, children with strong social skills – is that empathy can be learned.
Caroline Maguire, author of Why Will No One Play with Me? and an executive functioning coach based in Concord, Massachusetts, agrees. “All kids can say rude and hurtful things,” she says, “but one of the biggest things I like to stress with empathy is that understanding other people’s emotions can be taught.” Maguire adds that this is also true of children who may struggle to pick up on cues and emotions such as those with ADHD or autism. “There is strong evidence that empathy plays an active part of social exchanges,” she says, calling empathy “imperative” when it comes to developing a child’s social skills.
4 Ways to Teach Empathy to Children
Teaching empathy to children requires teaching, guiding, and practicing skills and strategies. There may also be some children who struggle to read social cues, or who have executive functioning challenges, which can make it difficult to fine-tune their social skills. However, there are many ways to teach empathy to children. Here’s a look at four common ones:
1. Express Genuine Concern Through Questions
“Offer kids a buffet of choices,” Maguire suggests. Instead of interrogating your child if they offer a one-word response, she advises engaging with them by asking questions. This shows them that you’re trying to understand their feelings. Besides, she says that this can open up doors in conversations, so the child may become more inclined to elaborate. In Why Will No One Play with Me? she writes that it’s important to consider your tone and the future relationship you’d like to have. “You want to create the experience of being a conversational family, a conversational partner, so your child knows: In this family, we talk about things that matter to us. We care about each other and we’re respectful, honest, and supportive in our conversation,” she writes.
2. Model Empathy
“One way for a child to learn empathy is to see it in action,” says Dr. Hallowell, who is also the host of the popular Distraction podcast. He explains that when parents interact with each other in ways that demonstrate caring behaviors, children notice. Doing something because it’s important to someone else or because it matters to them—speaking, showing, and modeling empathetic behaviors, rather than merely thinking about it—is important. Maguire agrees. “We have to not just talk about it, but live it,” she says.
3. Ask Children to Think of Others
If your child is quick to put another child down, don’t just laugh it off or brush it aside. Dr. Hallowell suggests asking your child, “How do you think that makes the other person feel?” or “Did you like it when you were called those words?” Doing so emphasizes the need for children to put themselves in other people’s shoes, calling attention to those moments when someone may have made them feel bad.
4. Don’t Send Conflicting Messages
Resist sending conflicting messages of empathy and shame. Maguire says she’s familiar with some school settings that have kindness circles as well as a wall of shame. This dichotomy can be confusing to children, she says. On one hand, practicing kindness is encouraged. On the other hand, there’s a focus on just the opposite – making others feel shame. “Children in such environments may live in fear and feel conflicted,” Maguire explains. “We have to help children.”
Benefits of Teaching Empathy to Children
A child who does not develop empathy can become a “selfish, narcissistic, boorish, and unattractive” person, Dr. Hallowell states. But, he says that there’s hope in the fact that “you can – and should – train empathy.” Additionally, Maguire adds that a child who isn’t taught about empathy may experience challenges when trying to be part of a community, saying that they may become alienated at a young age.
“Children who learn the ability to be empathetic are less likely to bully others, more likely to fit in a group, and to gain the social-emotional intelligence which leads to greater goal achievements,” Maguire explains.