Empathy is the ability to take another person’s perspective and imagine how they feel even if we haven’t experienced the same circumstance. It’s a sophisticated skill that needs to be modeled and taught if we’re hoping to raise kind and compassionate kids.
These suggestions are designed for children 4-10 years old and can be adapted to accommodate the whole family.
Laying a foundation
To start raising kind kids, we need to help our children develop a robust vocabulary of emotion words so they can label their own feelings as well as identify those of others.
Here are a few words you might want to introduce:
- We can do this by pointing out and using the vocabulary as we read stories, watch movies or TV programs and during our typical day.
- Practice making different faces in a mirror and labeling the emotion.
- Play emotions charades! Can you guess what emotion each person is trying to convey?
Learning how to regulate our own emotions is a critical social skill. While our children will have and experience all the feelings, we want to help them express them appropriately.
We can do this by validating what they feel and labeling the emotion especially if they aren’t able to yet. “You were angry that she grabbed your toy. That would make me angry too.”
Let them know the consequences of their actions rather than shaming them. “When we shove someone, we need to leave to cool off and then we don’t get to play with any toys.”
And then give them a model for appropriate behavior, “If someone grabs your toy, tell them you want it back or ask for help.”
As adults, we can demonstrate good examples of patience and kindness in our own interactions. But being a good role model may also mean apologizing for our own behavior and trying again next time! It’s easy to get caught up in traffic frustration, sports rivalries, annoyances with businesses, etc. but these are frequently situations where our children watch us closely!
- Try “reading” the pictures in stories or having your child “read” the pictures to you. When we take away the written word, we pay more attention to the visual clues in the pictures. See if you can tell how the person is feeling and if you figure out why they might feel this way.
- Similarly, watch a show without sound! Can you follow both the action and how the characters are feeling and responding to it? Either pause throughout the program to discuss or have your child recap what they perceived at the end. Now go back and watch with the sound! How close was your original guess to what actually happened?
- Wordless picture books and wordless shorts rely on the visuals to convey emotions and reactions, so they tend to emphasize facial expressions and body language more. These can be particularly helpful for children that struggle to “read” facial and body cues.*
18 Ways to Teach Empathy
- When everything you learn is new, it can feel like everyone is better at it (this often seems to be especially true for the youngest in the family). Making charts that list “what I’m good at” vs. “what I’m working on” can help them keep accomplishments in perspective.
- Mindfulness is a valuable habit to instill early and there are lots of options for how to include it in your day! You might want to try a few yoga poses or some breathing exercises. Go for a walk or sit quietly in nature and notice what you hear, see, smell and feel.
- Setting boundaries and sticking with them is a tough skill even for adults. So, practice standing up to others or making a different choice than others. Often we think about these “hard situations” as something we need to do in the face of “poor choices” (bullying, smoking, drinking), but it’s the everyday boundaries which are just as difficult and give us practice for the later ones with bigger consequences. Try practicing: asking for a toy that someone took/grabbed, choosing to play with a different classmate, choosing to play a different game, or wearing what you like even when it isn’t the norm. It might be turning down an invitation or offering an alternative, “thank you for the invitation! I’d love to come for dinner and to play, but not spend the night.”
When we talk about being thoughtful and caring with others, we want to be sure we aren’t giving the message, “this will make them happy” since we don’t actually have control over someone’s feelings. A better way to present the purpose of thoughtful actions is, “this lets them know we’re thinking about them and we care.”
Compassion towards family
- Teaching manners is a clear, easy-to-understand lesson even for very young ones. “Please” and “thank you” are outward signs of appreciation.
- You can help your child create gift “wish lists” for each person in the family to practice perspective-taking skills. This might be hard! Dad probably doesn’t want a new Lego set; he might prefer a new bike. Wish lists aren’t shopping lists, so let them go wild! They might use the ideas to decorate a card for each person and demonstrate how well they know the person! Older children can write their list and draw pictures on the card. A younger child can cut pictures out of a catalog or news circular.
- We can assist our children in understanding the less tangible gifts we are thankful for by having family members name something that made them feel good that day. A parent can help give context or reframe the selection to reflect gratitude when children aren’t yet able to. “You were happy you went outside to play today? I was thankful we had a sunny day too.” “You were happy you went to Caroline’s house? It sounds like you appreciate being invited by a friend.”
- In addition to “I love you,” start telling your children what you like about them or the actions they did that day. “I like that you helped your brother clean-up the playroom.” “I like when you tell me about your school day in the car.”
- Caring for a pet is a great opportunity to show compassion and empathy for another! Little ones can empty and refill water bowls, help with feeding, and learn to read your pet’s cues to see if they enjoy affection. Other jobs include walking or bathing pets and cleaning up waste.
- Responsibility for household chores demonstrates respect for your environment as well as your family and even very young children can help! Little ones might put napkins and cups on the table or pass out pre-bagged snacks. Children can be responsible for putting dirty clothes in the hamper, hanging up their jacket and backpack on a hook and putting shoes in a designated area. Older children can help clear dishes from the table, clean-up toys, put away laundry, make and clean up their own snacks.
- When we play games at home, we tend to get into the habit of “Mom is always green,” “I always get the red,” etc., but by letting others choose their game token first, we often get practice in being flexible which helps later when we are playing with friends and classmates. Have your child use a different game piece on occasion or try having them offer options for popsicle or lollipop flavor or juice box flavor to others before they select their own.
- Rather than letting the youngest go first, give them the privilege of choosing who goes first! Even though they may frequently choose themselves, it’s still good practice. Giving them a reminder, but then respecting their choice, will eventually make a difference, “Dad hasn’t gone first in awhile, but you get to decide.”
Compassion towards friends and peers
- Regularly asking, “who was (happy/sad/angry) today?” will help your child start to tune into the emotions of others. Expand on the lesson, by following up with, “what do you like people to do when you feel (happy/sad/angry)?” While you don’t need to ask them to follow through with helping their friend, presumably the emotional state has come and gone by that point, walking through the process will eventually allow them to offer support in the moment at a future time.
- When we encourage kids to say something nice to someone, they tend to compliment appearances or other material objects, ex. “I like your shoes.” “I like your stuffed bear.” Help them learn to compliment actions/behaviors by modeling it yourself. “You did a great job helping me clean up.” “I like the way you sing and dance!”
- Try writing thank you notes for birthday and holiday gifts. The Raising Grateful Children Project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, encourages us to take this further. Help children notice what makes us grateful (the gift or action) and then think about why we received it. How does that make us feel and then, in return, how do we express our appreciation?
Kindness towards the community
- For more specific compassion activities you might support an organization that collects gifts for needy families. It can be a difficult experience for a young child to walk into a store to choose toys for someone else, but worth it in the long run. (Note: try to exclude “fun” purchases for your child or family on that shopping run to keep the focus on helping others.) Not quite there? Buy canned goods for a food drive. Have your child help drop off the donation!
- ”Secret kindness” acts are another way to promote the giving spirits of the holidays. Brainstorm with your child actions they can take even if they might not be recognized. This might be cleaning up someone else’s mess, helping to open a door or carry items for someone or paying a compliment. I encourage children to say nice things about someone even if they’re not around, like telling a classmate “Nick shot a great goal today!”
- Pass on outgrown toys/clothes with an attitude of “this will make them let them know someone was thinking about them” rather than pity (“they don’t have toys”).
- Brainstorm friendly and inspiring messages you can leave on your sidewalk or road using sidewalk chalk. Think about how most readers will interact with the message before you start. Are they for joggers who might need encouragement and can read something smaller? Is it for a car that is driving down the street? They need something simple, short, and much larger.
Are you raising compassionate kids? I hope this quick list inspires you! Let me know which one(s) you plan to try!