If you asked me to name the #1 most important trait our kids need to thrive in today’s world, I’d answer “empathy," or the ability feel for another.
Why? As an educational psychologist, I know that the ability to empathize affects our kids’ future health, wealth, and happiness. And as a mom, I’ve learned that it helps my sons build healthier relationships, strong character, and learn how to bounce back. But empathy is also what motivates our children to care. Though children are born with this miraculous capacity, it must be nurtured.
Here are seven simple strategies from my new book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, that will help us raise caring kids in today’s world:
1. Talk about emotions.
Without the ability to identify emotions, kids are at a huge disadvantage. After all, how can they empathize if they can’t “read” how another person feels? Today’s kids would rather text than talk and are plugged into digital devices throughout the day.
So, weave feeling words into your conversations to teach emotional literacy. First, label the emotion you think your child feels: “You seem nervous." Or, “Do you feel irritated?” Next, help read others’ emotions: “How do you think Sally feels?” Finally, activate her empathy to care: “If you think Sally is sad, what can you do to help?”
2. Make kindness a routine.
Kids don’t become kind on their own—they need regular practice opportunities. Try my girlfriend’s "Two Kindness Rule." “I expect you to say or do at least two kind things every day,” she’d tell her daughters. The girls then reported their kind deeds later that night at dinner. And all that practice paid off: Her daughters are now kind-hearted adults.
3. Encourage them to imagine others' feelings.
One way kids learn to grasp others’ views is through role playing. Use role playing in discipline to help your child consider the impact of his uncaring actions. “Let’s stop and do this again, but this time, think how Kevin feels not being invited to play. I’ll pretend to be you. ‘Kevin, you can’t play with us.’ Now you be Kevin and act how he feels and thinks being left out.”
The more kids imagine another’s feelings and needs, the stronger their ability to empathize and care. So find ways to help your child imaginatively step into the shoes of another.
4. Capture caring moments.
We’re quick to snap photos of our kids’ academic successes, athletic prowess, or cute looks. But those shutter clicks convey to children that those images bring us the most pride. Make sure to also prominently display photos of your kids engaged in kind endeavors so they recognize that “caring matters.”
And instead of just asking, “What grade did you get?” also include, “What caring thing did you do today?” By adding “caring” to our regular discussions, kids understand that grades and kindness both matter!
5. Say, “I wonder...”
We are most likely to empathize with those “like us.” To foster empathy, we must help our children tune into those outside of their social hubs. As you pass a homeless man, say, “I wonder where he’ll sleep tonight.” As you watch a film about a family from a different culture, say, “I wonder how they feel.” Or an elderly neighbor: “I wonder if she’s lonely?”
Such questions help your child ponder the feelings of those “not like them” and realize that though people may be different from them, they still share the same thoughts and feelings. That realization helps children be more likely to care about all people.
6. Do a “kindness watch.”
A 4-year-old’s comment set my brain twirling: “I wanna be nice, but Mommy doesn’t teach me ‘nice.’” Such truth! If we hope to raise caring kids, let’s teach them how to care.
One easy way to increase kindness is for kids to see it, so they can copy it. When you’re in a people place—a store, airport, mall, etc.—tell your child to look for kindness and then discuss the act and how your child could duplicate it. And don’t forget to tune up caring behaviors in yourself, so your child copies your own example.
7. Create a caring family motto.
A family mantra is a short phrase that expresses your core values. It also helps children to define themselves and their beliefs. So develop a short phrase that best describes your family. For example, “Our family steps in to help.” Or, “We are kind even if no one is looking.”
Kids need to hear the mantra often to internalize it, so find ways to weave it into your family life. Our family used to do a morning huddle and recite our pledge. One family I know hangs it on their refrigerator. And a teen told me that her family said, “We’re the caring Feys” so often that the “motto became who I am. I see myself as a caring person.” Keep repeating it, until your children adopt it as their operating principle for life.
The best moments to nurture empathy are usually not planned—they just happen. Capitalize on those moments to help your child understand the power that "feeling with others" can have. The parenting road may be bumpy, but if you stay focused on raising a caring child, there will be no better reward: you will have raised a good human being.