Teach kids empathy: 9 Expert recommended ways

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9 Effective ways to teach kids empathy, for parents who want to raise their little ones to be good people with kind and caring hearts.

Being a hands-on dad of three young children, I am always keen to learn and pick up parenting skills and knowledge that will bring our relationships to the next level. For me, teaching empathy to toddlers — especially mine — is very important. 

I want to be able to relate to them and be their safe harbour while they navigate through their adventures in life.  In our digital world, where children are increasingly seeking attention and answers from social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Myspace etc and the internet, (aka “Selfie Syndrome”), I find it compelling to understand what goes through young minds when they go online.

After attending Dr Michele Borba’s presentation at the Singapore Parenting Congress 2017, I am enlightened. Dr Michele is an internationally recognized expert and author of several best-selling books on children, teens, parenting, bullying and moral development.

One of the key findings that she shared is that teens are now 40 % less empathetic than 30 years ago and narcissism has increased 58 %! Studies have shown that our children are increasingly growing up in a world where “ME” takes more priority than “WE”. As a result, we are witnessing more bullying, peer cruelty, aggression, prejudice from children than ever.

And this is why I think teaching empathy to toddlers and older children is so very important. 

The good news is that selfie behaviour is largely human made and we can overturn the Selfie syndrome. Dr Michele’s 9 strategies for developing, practicing and living empathy is a good reference for parents who want to raise their little ones to be good people with kind and caring hearts.

Teaching empathy to toddlers and older kids 

1. Teaching Children Emotional Literacy

Before a child can put himself into someone’s shoes, he must first develop the ability to read non-verbal cues in facial expressions, gestures and voice tones. Beefing up his emotional vocabulary during this process is key.

Hence, help your child to understand feelings whenever you can. Put aside your digital device and tune in with your child. Ask your child how he felt about his day, an incident or someone who he has just met etc.

E.g. How do you think Grandma is feeling right now when we are going to leave? Always look face to face when communicating with your child.

To get your child’s eye contact, try Dr Michele’s suggestion, “Get your child to always look at the colour of the talker’s eyes”. It is very useful and I have seen my eldest child responding well to the idea.

teaching empathy to toddlers

Teaching empathy to toddlers means they grow up more compassionate

2. Developing a Moral Identity

Social scientists revealed that most of the empathetic ordinary citizens share a deep belief in humanity. They care about the feelings and thoughts of others and most credited their parents for forming a strong moral identity.

At an early age, you can start to identify core values that the family stands for and plant these in your little ones. Involve your child and discuss questions such as : What kind of family do we want to become? What kind of feelings do we want in the house?

How do we want others to describe us? Whatever values you choose, remember your child is modelling your behaviour; what you do, matters. Teaching empathy to toddlers means you’re sowing the seeds for an empathetic, compassionate adult. 

3. Instilling Perspective Taking

Role-playing and imagineering have been found to be effective ways to help a child gain the perspective of the other party. By deliberately putting your child in a “real-life” situation and get him to imagine the consequences of a particular action can boost perspective taking.

E.g Ask questions like, “Joseph Schooling won the Olympics for 100 m butterfly, how do you think he felt when he stood on the podium?”

“That boy looks sad with the melted ice-cream in his hand, what do you think he needs to feel better?” According to research, when a child can understand others’ perspective, chances are they are more likely to be empathetic, better adjusted and have healthier peer relationships.

4. Reading to Cultivate Empathy

Studies have found that the more stories young children read, the stronger their ability to figure out what other people are thinking and feeling. If stories are so impactful, what would you read to your child?

What are the values that you would like to see in your child? http://www.commonsense.org offers a wide range of reviews regarding books and movies. Do visit the website to ascertain child rating for each media before exposing your child to it.

5. Managing Strong Emotions and Mastering Self-Regulation

To practice empathy in their daily lives, children need to learn additional habits. One of them is
self-regulation.

It composes skills such as self-awareness, self-management, emotional literacy and problem solving. When it comes to learning self-regulation, we are our children’s best reference.

How do you handle conflicts in the family? How do you handle when someone knocks your drink over at the restaurant? One of the suggested strategies is for children to pick up age appropriate Yoga.

Mindful breathing and intentional body movements help relieve stress and tension, key obstacles to staying calm, for the little ones.

teaching empathy to toddlers

Teaching empathy to toddlers is so important for their all-round development

6. Practice Kindness

Studies have found close association between happiness, self-esteem, health and resilience and practicing kindness. When kids perform acts of kindness, they feel the joy of giving.

And kindness need not necessarily cost a dime. Giving up your seat to a person in need i.e. elderly, pregnant ladies, or sharing your food or umbrella with a classmate etc. are all acts of kindness.

Like a muscle, the more kids practice acts of kindness, the more likely they will adopt it as a habit. (It requires at least 21 consecutive days of performing an action consistently to form a habit).

Make practicing kindness a natural part of your family ritual. Sharing this article with another parent is an act of kindness too.

7. Cultivating Empathy Through Teamwork and Collaboration.

Home is often the best place to encourage teamwork. Work together as a family to finalise the grocery shopping list, Christmas decoration for the house or even planning a trip etc.

Through interactions, problem solving and task divisions etc, your child geta to experience the process of collaboration and value of teamwork. Try to use “We” or “Us” more frequently to develop a cooperative and collaborative mindset.

It may not be easy initially as lots of moderation could be required from the adults. But as your child learns to get along, compromise and empathise with others, you get to benefit too (from lesser screaming and fuming which might improve your health).

8.Promoting Moral Courage

If someone needs help that your child can provide, how would you like your child to react?
Similar to moral identity, research links having the courage to stick out and respond to challenging situations, to parenting.

If you would like to see your child helping others in need, start instilling social responsibility in him at an early age. Show him when you go out of your way to help someone in need.

Boost his courage by getting him to face difficult situations squarely instead of helping him out. E.g. Getting the child to tell the swim coach that he has forgotten about the practice, admitting to the teacher about breaking the window etc.

Remember, the best person to plant the seeds of moral courage in your child is none other than you. Teaching empathy to toddlers sets the foundation for a strong moral upbringing. 

9. Being a Changemaker

People often assume that it takes a lot to provide meaningful assistance or make significant impact. It’s true for tough global issues.

We cannot change the world but we all can make a difference and create positive change for someone. Identify a passion in your child, say playing Violin.

You could approach an old age home and volunteer your family time entertaining the folks with music and dance. You could even scale it up by roping in your child’s violinist friends to raise funds for the old age home.

Encouraging your child to help others can bring him immense happiness and a sense of fulfilment that no material gain could offer. Provide encouragement and support no matter how small the effort may seem. Praise his character. Make ‘Helping others’ a routine part of his childhood. Children can be empathetic Changemakers only when they are given regular opportunities to help others.

“Empathy is the root of humanity and the foundation that helps our children become good, caring people” – Dr Michele Borba

Also READ! How empathetic parenting helps in emotional development

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Written by

Tan Chin Hock

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