Do your kids possess empathy? Empathy can make you more aware of others’ feelings and situations. Empathy is a major player when it comes to the moral actions we choose. The new educational indicative called Start Empathy has some tips to help parents instill empathy into their children:
Empathy is a crucial skill for leading a successful and happy life. Empathy provides a strong foundation for listening, communications, collaboration and problem-solving – critical skills in a rapidly changing world. Empathy is also an antidote for narcissistic and destructive behaviors such as bullying and physical violence.
What can you as a parent do to develop empathy in your children? A lot, actually. Human beings are wired for empathy, but like any other skill, empathy needs to be nurtured and practiced. The process begins at home from early childhood and continues throughout the teen years. Parents aren’t the only teachers of empathy, but as your children’s first and most consistent caregivers, you play an extremely important role in their character development.
Start Empathy, a collaboration of social entrepreneurs, educators and parents – is working to make empathy as essential as reading and math in education. Below are some of their tips on ways parents can start developing empathy in children:
1. Teach Your Child to Notice Tone of Voice and Body Language – The ability to recognize and label emotions in other people is a critical component of empathy. One of the best things a parent can do is not to analyze your child’s emotions, but rather to explain your own. Start by saying, “I feel [state your emotion] when you [state the action that causes the emotion].” Ask your child, “How can you tell I’m feeling [emotion]?” Explain that our tone of voice and body language usually show how we are feeling, and give examples of your own behavior (e.g., my tone of voice sounds dreary, and my head is down). Let children practice this by having them say the phrase, “I’m sorry,” in several different ways (e.g. happy, angry, or sad). Ask, “Which one would make you feel good if your friend said it to you? Which one would not make you feel good?”
2. Share Stories – Stories and storytelling build empathy. Some empathy-building books are:
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- A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Age Range: 5-8
- The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes, Age Range: 6-10
- The Giver, by Lois Lowry, Age Range: 9-12
- To Kill a Mocking Bird, by Harper Lee, Age Range: 13+
Rather than just reading a book, try asking questions like, “How would you feel if you were [person/character]? How do you think [person/character] might be feeling? How do you know?” Such questions will help children begin to think about others’ points of view. You can follow those questions up with, “Can you think up a time when you felt the same way?”
Consider starting a weekly tradition in which one family member shares a short letter or drawing about their experiences that day or week, their hopes or frustrations, or anything else that’s on their mind. You as a parent should kick off this tradition with your own letter, setting the tone and intimacy, opening up to your family to model openness and empathy.
3. Celebrate Diversity – Go to movies, festivals, and eat in restaurants from a variety of countries and religions. Even better, cook with your kids and a friend from a culture different from your own, listen to folk tales and music from around the world.
4. Establish Media Guidelines – Kids today are surrounded by social media and online gaming, so forbidding all media is not realistic. You need to establish guidelines that allow your kids to use media safely, wisely and enjoyably. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend any media for children under two. As children develop, slowly integrate the use of media as one of a number of activities that you can share with your children. Common Sense Media is an excellent resource that rates the suitability of media for children. In the end, the best way to protect children online is to discuss the issues and teach them how to help themselves.
5. Pets Foster Empathy – According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), “A child who learns to care for an animal, and treat it kindly and patiently, may get invaluable training in learning to treat people the same way… Positive relationships with pets can aid in the development of trusting relationships with others. A good relationship with a pet can also help in developing non-verbal communication, compassion, and empathy.”
6. Be a Role Model – Children learn from and mimic their parents’ behaviors. Talking about being and playing “nice” is important, but actions have to match words. As a child’s closest and most important role model, it’s vital that you demonstrate empathic behavior to your children. This can be as simple as always speaking respectfully of other people, or helping a friend or neighbor in need. Small actions on a daily basis represent the best opportunities to translate empathy into action.
For many more tips on how to start empathy in action, go to the Start Empathy blog.