If love means never having to say you’re sorry, empathy is wanting to say you’re sorry…and really believing you can make a difference. It’s knowing a kiss can mend a boo-boo and a favorite toy can distract—or delight—a crying child.
But teaching empathy can be a challenge. Developmentally, several things must take place before real empathy kicks in. For example, a child has to understand that:
- she is her own person, with her own thoughts and feelings;
- others have thoughts and feelings that may be different from her own;
- things others say or do can make her feel better when she’s scared, sad, or angry; and
- she can recognize those feelings in others and help someone else feel better, too.
Don’t be put off by the challenge; it’s worth the effort. Empathetic kids have better social skills and greater confidence, compared with other children. Also, empathy is linked to stronger relationships, workplace success, and a better quality of life. So, when an opportunity pops up, and it will, take a moment to guide your little one toward a deeper understanding of other people’s feelings.
5 Totally Teachable Moments
1. The opportunity: Your child trips and falls, or pinches her finger. The lesson: I am here for you.
Show your preschooler what it means to be empathetic. Offer comfort and care, and show her that you can both identify what she’s feeling (“Ouch! That must hurt!”) and you want to try to assist (“I’ll get you an ice pack. That will help with the pain.”). Speak soothingly and supportively.
2. The opportunity: You and your child read a nightly bedtime story. The lesson: Everyone has feelings.
Storybooks can bring to life emotions such as joy and sadness and help young children identify and understand the feelings of those around them. Through pictures, words, and beloved characters, books give kids a good sense of how different emotions can look, sound, and feel. This understanding is a crucial step on the path to empathy. Books reinforce what your child is learning at school and at home, and give you a chance to talk about feelings together.
3. The opportunity: At the playground, your child’s friend is stuck halfway up a ladder. The lesson: Friends help each other.
First, guide your child to notice the problem: “Uh oh, it looks like James is trying to reach the platform, but he can’t get there. How do you think he is feeling?” Then, once he realizes what’s happening, see if he can come up with a solution. Ask, “Can you think of a way to help?” It’s important to give your child a chance to come up with some ideas, rather than jump in right away with an answer of your own.
4. The opportunity: During a playdate, your child grabs a crayon right out of her buddy’s hand. The lesson: Authenticity matters.
Your instinct might be to make your child apologize immediately for her behavior. But that doesn’t help her learn empathy. She needs to step into her friend’s shoes. Instead of putting the words I’m sorry into her mouth, ask her how she would feel if the roles were reversed. Ask, “Would you be mad? What would you want your friend to say or do?”
5. The opportunity: In a busy checkout line, your preschooler loudly announces that a fellow shopper is “so ugly.” The lesson: Words can hurt.
While you may wish for the floor to swallow you up, now’s your chance to help your child learn a quick lesson. Instead of shushing or scolding him, offer an explanation: “Hearing that probably made the man feel sad. Remember when your sister called you a baby and you didn’t like it?” It won’t erase the moment, but you might make progress toward that big goal of raising an empathetic child.