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Teaching Empathy To Children: 5 Tips From A Child Care Expert

Caroline Maguire, M.Ed.
Author and child care expert
By Caroline Maguire, M.Ed.
Author and child care expert
Caroline Maguire, M.Ed., is an author of Why Will No One Play with Me?: The Play Better Plan to Help Children of All Ages Make Friends and Thrive and child care expert who primarily works with ADHD children and families.
Image by Kristen Curette Hines / Stocksy
December 12, 2020

The world as we know it is no longer the world as we knew it. What happened? It's been a blur, but we can all commiserate. Social distancing is making us exhausted and lonely. But who is hit the hardest? Our children. Sequestering in place has made even the most accommodating families struggle to express compassion. As we all wrestle to keep our heads above water and stay connected, overwhelm can make it easy to forget that others are also suffering. 

Creating a culture of compassion is harder than ever yet more necessary. 

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What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to truly show compassion, understand another person's experience, and walk in someone else's shoes. The ability to show empathy is a life skill that can be taught at any age: And the outcomes are abundantly beneficial. For example, empathetic children are less likely to bully others. Or research shows that leaders who listen to and try to understand their employees' emotions are more successful. In addition, the lack of emotional intelligence can limit your success in the workplace. 

Why families should create a culture of empathy. 

When it comes to empathy, small acts can make big changes. See, small acts mean a lot because they weave empathy into the fabric of our daily lives, and these acts help children develop social-emotional skills. After all, the goal is to promote the developmental strengths and positive character of the whole child. 

And in a world that feels distant, small acts of kindness can bring us closer. Demonstrating to children how to be compassionate is a life lesson we all need them to learn. Consider small acts of kindness you can do together. For example, is there an older neighbor who needs her walk shoveled? Is there a toy you could purchase together to give to a child in need? Empathy helps children feel connected and helps to develop their character and social-emotional growth.

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Parents have a huge role in teaching empathy.

There are many ways parents can encourage empathetic behavior in their children. The role of the parent—the child's first role model—is to encourage empathy at home, in school, and in the community through small daily acts of kindness and by creating a culture of compassion. A self-aware, respectful child is what society needs in order to build trust and a sense of belonging for everyone. Learning to manage emotions, peacefully resolve conflicts, and make responsible friends and decisions benefits everyone.

As the most important role model in a child's life, parents can strive to model emotional intelligence at home. Our homes should be the "safe place to fall" for every member. It is where we can each come, at the end of a long, stressful day, and be ourselves. We are loved unconditionally, and we, in turn, value and love others. With this supportive foundation, our children can go to school, sports fields, theater stages, and online chat rooms and be an emotional support to others. Not to mention the ability to empathize is more important now than ever, as social distancing may have added another effect on our population: the opportunity to conduct less-than-positive interactions behind screens. 

5 tips to teach empathy to your child.

Teaching empathy must involve not only fostering a community but also coaching children individually. Help guide your child toward a greater understanding of what kind and empathetic behavior looks like: 

  1. Pounce on teaching opportunities. When you witness a situation in which someone is involved in an emotional experience, appropriately and respectfully bring attention to it. This may be during or after the incident, but involve your child in conversations about another person's experience. For example, "What do you think is going on in your friend's life? What did you notice about her reaction to the situation?"
  2. Demonstrate kindness yourself. Model listening by stopping whatever you are doing when your child comes to you. Listen intently. Don't interrupt. Repeat back what you heard in order to ensure you understood the root of the message. Hear your child's or partner's perspective and step into their shoes. Even small acts like validating that remote learning is hard or that the latest shortage in cellophane tape means your partner searched in vain—acts to create a culture of empathy in the home. 
  3. Point out rude or disrespectful behavior. Perhaps it was your child who acted insensitively to Grandma. Collaboratively talk about your child's behavior and ask him to interpret how his behavior made someone feel. Ask your child, "How do you think she feels when you correct her? What did you mean to do?" Model holding back sharp comments and filtering your social media retorts. Lead by example as you try to understand the perspective of others as you discuss the people in your children's lives. 
  4. Model compassion. Taking out the garbage when someone has a meeting and is pressed for time, verbalizing that you understand things must be hard right now, and small acts of kindness will foster a culture of empathy. Your children are watching. Is that how you would like to be remembered. If not, work on your self-regulation and impulse control. The goal is not to be perfect. Instead, it is to show that everyone can use self-monitoring and self-work.
  5. Guide; don't preach. No one can remain intent when lectured to: Guide children to look at what another's situation or point of view is. Dictating that they must be thoughtful and caring may have the opposite effect. Help your child step into the shoes of his peer. Ask her questions to help her reflect on others' states of mind. "What do other people feel? What was the reaction to your behavior? What did the other people's facial expressions tell you about their feelings?"
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The ability to understand other people's emotions and respond with kindness is a life skill. To belong is to demonstrate empathy and the foundation of a nurturing society. 

 

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Caroline Maguire, M.Ed.
Caroline Maguire, M.Ed.
Author and child care expert

Caroline Maguire, M.Ed. is a childcare expert and the author of Why Will No One Play with Me?: The Play Better Plan to Help Children of All Ages Make Friends and Thrive. She works with children with ADHD and the families who support them. Caroline earned her ACCG, the most advanced level of certification from the ADD Coach Academy. She received a Master of Education from Lesley University. Her revolutionary program and methodology helps teach executive function skills to children, teenagers, and young adults. She is a former coach for the Hallowell Center in Sudbury, MA. She consults with schools and families internationally and has been co-leading social skills groups for over a decade.