Empathy to me is having compassion for others. Children can develop empathy at different times but typically have a solid compassion for others by the ages of 8 or 9. There are lots of different ways kids can learn empathy. I have listed my top 5 ways to help foster empathy in children.
1. Label their feelings for them- It's really never too early to start helping children identify their feelings. Children, like adults have a variety of emotions and they don't have the necessary tools or maturity to understand them. This is where the parent can be a great help to their children. Making statements where you label their emotions can be a big step in the right direction of getting them to identify different feelings. "Alex, you are sad that you lost your favoite toy." " You're proud that you did your best on your spelling test today." Label your feelings for them too. "I'm frustrated because I keep trying and I cant get the lock to open."
2. Start a dialog with them- Look for opportunities to talk to your kids about what the characters are experiencing in books and on tv. " How do you think the bunny felt when they weren't chosen to be in the play?" " How do you think Rebecca feels about going to camp for the first time." This dialogue can become more complex as your child gets older and is able to recognize different emotions.
3. Provide opportunities for them to help others- If we stop and look around there a plenty of moments to teach kids empathy. Encourage them to pick up coins that fell out of a woman's purse, have them help their friend up when they have fallen, or open the door for someone who's hands are full.
4Encourage them to take care of animals- A small fish is a great pet for a little one. They can feed it and help change the water. If you want to up the ante' and have a dog or cat for your child, encourage them to imagine how their animals are feeling. Have them talk to their pet and share with the pet how they are feeling. Have them softly brush the pet each day and make sure they have fresh water and food each day. If pets really aren't your "thing" because someone in your home has allergies or for other reasons, your child can have a playdate with a friend who has a small pet or they can check on the neighbor's cat while they are out of town.
5. Model Model Model- Yes it's that important that I have said it three times! Parents are their children's greatest teachers. You know that saying, "Actions speak louder than words?" Time to take action. Bring old blankets and towels to the animal shelter. Make a meal for a friend or neighbor in need. Bring your kids with you so they can see the benefits of being empathic to others. Next time when you have your kids in tow and someone is rude or upsets you, instead of saying " jerk" under your breath or a rude comment back to the person, try a little compassion. For example, say "Hmmm.. I wonder why that lady honked at me back there she must be in a hurry." Then have your kids come up with different scenarios. "Maybe her grandson was being born at the hospital and she was worried she would miss it." or "Maybe her husband was getting back from being stationed over seas and she didnt want to be late." "Maybe her dog is lost and she's looking for it." This helps the child see things from someone else's point of view.
Parents have so much on their plates and much of the time it feels like there isn't enough time in the day to get everything done. Luckily, there are lots of opportunities for kids to develop compassion for others.
What are some ways you teach your children to have empathy?