There seems to be a misconception around empathy that it’s a trait that can’t be taught. However, there are plenty of practical ways to help your child better understand the world around them and develop empathetic thinking towards others who have different thoughts and feelings than they do.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is one of the most complex skills your child will develop. At a high level, empathy is being able to imagine how someone else feels in a particular situation. It’s being able to put yourself in the shoes of another. Empathetic children understand they’re separate individuals, and that they can have different opinions and thoughts from others. Empathetic thinking helps kids recognize the common feelings most humans share and go beyond recognition to understanding how someone could feel after a moment affects them.
Why Empathy Matters
The world can be harsh, and it’s tempting to bypass empathy and encourage loved ones to “look out for number one” rather than help others. Empathy is critical in combating selfishness, aggression, and name-calling in children (and, let’s be honest, adults). Research also shows that empathy leads to fostering more helping behaviors, as empathetic children want to help those around them and alleviate negative feelings.
How to Practice Empathy
While there’s no foolproof way to instill empathy in your kid, here are some tips for making it easier to understand:
- Show them firsthand. Empathizing with your child and explicitly stating things like “Are you angry about this? That’s okay. I understand why you would be angry” show your kid that they’re understood — and that’s the first step toward them treating others that way.
- Point out instances where your child can be a helper. Encourage them to actively look for people who might be in pain or need help. They’ll use those growing empathy skills to not only point out someone who could use a hand, but they’ll also use critical thinking to create a possible solution.
- Read stories about feelings. There are plenty of books for a variety of age groups that explore feelings in ways that are accessible to children. One of the most common for younger children is “My Many Colored Days” by Dr. Seuss. Be sure to ask your child’s teacher for age-appropriate recommendations!
- Stay patient. Teaching empathy takes time; most teens and adults still struggle with being empathetic! But as with teaching your child anything new, consistency is key.
At Lake Forrest Prep, a private school in Orlando, we want our students to be more than smart; we want them to grow up to become well-rounded and emotionally intelligent individuals. We value growth in school and in the home. For more resources, check out our blog.