One of the biggest concerns we have as parents is whether our kids will grow up to be good people. You may be wondering how to “do it right” and make sure your kids will be kind and thoughtful. While we can’t control who they ultimately become, teaching empathy to kids is a great foundation.
How to Teach Your Kids Empathy
Empathy is understanding how someone is feeling, even if you don’t share the same sentiment. It helps us understand where people are coming from and consider how our actions may affect them. It’s easy to see why empathy is such an important part of being a kind person!
Age Appropriate Expectations
When considering how to best raise empathetic kids, we have to start by assessing their abilities to feel empathy. While even babies can show signs of empathy, kids cannot develop it past a very beginner stage until they reach a certain age. Placing expectations on them beyond their emotional development will only lead to frustration for both you and your child.
Take sharing, for example. Your two-year-old isn’t a selfish meanie; they probably aren’t capable of the empathy required for sharing! Understanding at this age only goes so far as to say, “I want this toy, so I’m going to take it.” Their minds don’t go the extra step to care that someone else was already playing with it.
That’s not to say they won’t ever show signs of caring for others, just that it will likely be irregular. At two, my son will give his sister the sweetest hug if she fell, then turn around and push his baby brother to take his toy. They’re developing, and it doesn’t always make sense!
By the age of three or four, kids can begin to understand the connection between emotions and desires. And by age five, they are likely to begin showing genuine compassion.
The Key to Teaching Empathy to Kids
Even before our kids are old enough to show true empathy, we can instill these values from infancy. The key to teaching empathy to kids is to show it to them in OUR behaviors. There is no better moral teacher than a parent, which couldn’t be more true for empathy.
From the time they are babies, our nurturing responses fill our children with the love and security needed to be loving toward others later in life. As they grow into toddlers, our patience and understanding of their big emotions give the perfect picture of respecting others’ feelings. These day-to-day actions reinforce what it means to genuinely be there for someone.
They will likely struggle as they develop as all children do. But they’ll have those loving memories to rely on when deciding how to react to a situation. As they get older, they’ll get better and better at choosing to replicate the empathy they’ve experienced firsthand from you.
Specific Ways for You to Teach Empathy
If your overall effort is put towards being an empathetic example to your children, they will learn so much from that. But there are certain ways you can further reinforce these skills, especially if there’s a particular area they’re struggling with.
One way to help kids recognize their own and others’ emotions are to verbalize them. When they’re upset, it’s helpful to say it out loud “Wow, you seem upset that it’s nap time. You really love playing with your toys, and I’m sure it’s frustrating to have to stop.” You can also explain it to them like this if they see another child having a hard time.
Another great way to encourage empathy is positive reinforcement. When your child does something thoughtful, make sure to let them know you see and appreciate it. They don’t need a bunch of jumping and clapping, but a simple “I am so proud of the thoughtful person you are” can go a long way. You could even make a Kindness Rainbow to show a visual for the beauty they spread.
Lastly, bring empathy into other aspects of your day together. When playing pretend, make thoughtful suggestions for them to do with their stuffed animals, such as tucking them in. During storytime, point out when a character was being kind to another. When they see examples of empathy in multiple areas of life, it will seem natural for them to follow suit.
Raising Empathetic Kids
When we’re in the trenches of motherhood, there are a million ways we can feel we aren’t doing it right. But when it comes to teaching empathy to kids, we have to roll with the flow of their developmental abilities. As long as we keep working at being positive role models and reinforcing positive behavior, the chances are excellent that we’ll come out on the other side with kind and thoughtful kids after all.