Empathy is a 21st century buzzword, the one quality educators, and parents, and mental health professionals, and really all healthy adults want to build in children. The problem is that adults cannot force children to build empathy. They can, however, help children build empathy through a variety of experiences and activities.
First, though, let’s consider what empathy means. Merriam-Webster’s (n.d.) dictionary defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of…the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” It is important to recognize that empathy is not sympathy. It is not feeling bad for another human being, but rather understanding what it might be like to be that human being. It is perspective taking, a skill that is caught as much as taught (Gordon, n.d., as cited in Walsh & Walsh, 2019). This means that helping kids build empathy requires not just cognitive education, but also experiential education.
To be able to practice empathy, though, kids need a foundation. First, they must feel safe (Walsh & Walsh, 2019). Then they need to be able to name and identify their own feelings. They must be able to regulate their own feelings in order to remain separate from the feelings of others, rather than taking part in them (Dewar, 2020). They need some level of abstract thinking, or at the least, an adult with abstract thought who can co-regulate with them. Empathy, while innately possible for humans, needs to help to be elicited (Walsh & Walsh, 2019). This is where adults come in.
How do caregivers, parents, and adults help kids build empathy, then? They include or orchestrate activities that allow children to take the perspectives of others. Examples could include:
- Asking children to consider how their actions affect others (How did ___ feel when you did __?)
- Asking children how they can make others feel better, rather than just saying, “Sorry”
- Having children write or draw from the perspectives of others
- Reading stories about children who differ from them (e.g. ethnically, racially, nationally, or socially) (Suttie, 2016).
- Watching movies about children with different abilities, disabilities, and physical presentations (e.g. Radio, Soul Surfer, Wonder) (Common Sense Media, n.d.)
Adults can also encourage children to play. This allows them to practice taking on different roles (Walsh, 2015) via their imagination (Kaiser, 2020). Examples of play where this naturally occurs are:
- Dress up (Fitzgerald, 2021)
- Playing cars
- Playing house
Caregivers can also work alongside children as children experience the needs of the world. This enlarges the children’s “’circle of concern’” (Making Caring Common Project, 2021; Walsh, 2015). Settings that lend themselves to caregiver/child regulation may include:
- Angel Tree
- Community Service (Balani, 2020)
- Homeless outreaches
- Operation Christmas Child (or other shoebox programs)
There is no right way to teach empathy. In fact, the more ways and times adults teach empathy, the better. Children need a variety of opportunities to grow their empathy skills, and adults are the ones to provide them these chances.
Balani, M. (2021, February 1). Developing empathy in kids: Here’s what to know. Today. https://www.today.com/parenting-guides/want-raise-empathetic-children-here-s-what-know-t177606
Common Sense Media (n.d.) Movies with characters who have physical disabilities. https://www.commonsensemedia.org/lists/movies-with-characters-who-have-physical-disabilities
Dewar, G. (2020). Teaching empathy. Evidence-based tips for fostering empathetic awareness in children. Parenting Science. https://parentingscience.com/teaching-empathy-tips/
Fitzgerald, M. (2021, May 29). 5 ways to help kids build empathy. Tinkergarten. https://tinkergarten.com/blog/8-simple-ways-to-help-kids-build-cognitive-empathy
Kaiser, E. (2020, June 25). 4 tips to help children develop empathy. Better Kids. https://betterkids.education/blog/4-tips-to-help-children-develop-empathy
Making Caring Common Project (2021, March). 5 tips for cultivating empathy. Harvard Graduate School of Education. https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/resources-for-families/5-tips-cultivating-empathy
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Empathy. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved October 7, 20201 from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy
Suttie, J. (2016, June 10). Seven ways to foster empathy in kids. Greater Good Magazine. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/seven_ways_to_foster_empathy_in_kids
Walsh, E. (2015, February 8). Teaching empathy to kids starts with us. Spark & Stitch Institute. https://sparkandstitchinstitute.com/teaching-empathy-to-kids/#empathytips
Walsh, E., & Walsh, D. (2019, May 9). How children develop empathy. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/smart-parenting-smarter-kids/201905/how-children-develop-empathy