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How to Teach Empathy to Kids

social justice parenting, how to teach empathy to kidsLet's start with an easy definition. Empathy is the ability to understand and be sensitive to other people's feelings by putting yourself (figuratively) in someone else's shoes.
 
Some kids seem to be born with an innate ability to show empathy and comprehend others’ perspective. Others need a little push here and there to make sure they’re on the right path toward understanding where others are coming from.


One child is not bad and the other good, they’re just different humans with individual experiences and viewpoints.

Regardless of what degree of empathy your child does or doesn’t have, let's dive into 3 easy ways to help them widen their skills. As always, feel free to tailor the content to your child's maturity level.

How to Teach Empathy Tip #1: Model Compassionate Behavior 

As with all of the values we try to teach our kids, the strategy that seems to sink in best is to model the desired behavior. If your child sees you being understanding and proactive in a situation where someone needs help, odds are they'll do the same thing when they're on their own. 

Here are some ideas for leading by example:

  • Take them with you to donate winter coats. Encourage them to help you load/unload items from the car. 
  • If you see an elderly person looking for their car in a parking lot, ask them if they need help. Showing your child what kindness to strangers looks like will make a lasting impression.
  • If your server brings you the wrong order at a restaurant, make a point of telling him/her that everyone makes mistakes and it’s not a big deal.
  • If someone is right behind you in a checkout line with only a few items and your cart is full, offer to let that person go in front of you.
  • If a dog looks lost and scared, take the time to help the dog. If that means getting the dog into your car, reading tags and making a phone call (if it has tags), or taking it to the vet to read an identity chip, do it.
  • If there's a particularly heart-wrenching scene on a television series or movie you're watching together, comment on how hard it must be for the person or animal who is suffering.
  • Empathize with your child so they know what it feels like. 
  • Don’t be afraid to apologize. It's not a sign of weakness, but a brave act of courage and strength.
  • Show happiness for a friend who has good news.
  • Hold the door open for someone who has their arms full.
  • If you pass a homeless person on the street, talk about what it might be like to have to sleep out in the open, or not know when you can eat next, or not have anywhere to put your stuff.  

How to Teach Empathy Tip #2: Suggest Hands-On Helping Activities

These hands-on activities are perfect for kids who need a refresher or beginner) course on empathy.

(Sorry...this one probably involves more work (and driving) on your part.)

  • CPR training is a great way for your child to feel good about helping others in need. In-person classes are better for teaching compassion than taking an online certification course. 
  • Volunteering. The Youth Volunteer Corps – a non-profit service organization operating throughout the United States and Canada - was created to introduce, encourage, and support the spirit of volunteerism in youth.
  • Animal shelters. For information about volunteering at an animal shelter in your community, talk to veterinary office workers. 
  • Community service. Ask your child's teacher or guidance counselor if there are any community service opportunities they could recommend.
  • Tutoring. If they're able, encourage your child to tutor other kids who need help with their schoolwork. Then "talk up" what a difference they're making.
TIP: Performing a physical act is the most effective way to learn a skill. 

How to Teach Empathy Tip #3: Cultivate Compassion at Home 

woke parenting, DEI parents

This last tip offers some ideas for building empathy skills at home. You don't necessarily have to divulge that they're empathy-building activities. (Wink. Wink.)

  • Thank you notes. Kids love this (kidding!). Help your child write a genuine thank you note. Not the standard "thank you for..." but something that really describes how they felt when they opened the gift. Have them think about how the gift-giver knew your child would like the gift. Doing this will hopefully help them make a connection between their own feelings and the feelings of other people - a giant step towards being able to ‘put yourself in others’ shoes.’
  • Heroes. Ask your child who their favorite hero is. Ask what kind of compassionate traits this hero has. Does the hero stand up to bullies? Help the less fortunate? Support peers by not being a bystander? Without putting your child on the spot, ask them to recount a time when their hero did something compassionate.
  • Random scenarios. Make up random scenarios and tell your child how you would react. You can sprinkle these types of scenarios into whatever timing feels right. There's no need for a formal, sit-down quiz about how to be compassionate. Here's an example: It's your classmate's turn to stay late and clean up the classroom. But he wants to go home as soon as possible because his mother is quite ill. He asks you to help him. Would you do it? Answer yes and explain why.
  • Stand up for others. Bullying and harassment is something that kids unfortunately experience all the time. Turn it into a teaching opportunity by encouraging your child (if it's safe!) to stand up for anyone who's being targeted and victimized. Boy or girl. Teach them that it takes a much stronger person to stand up for what's right than to go along with what's wrong. 

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