Baby being held between mother and father

Photograph by Rob & Julia Campbell / Stocksy 

Want to raise empathetic kids? Here are 3 expert-approved tips

Empathy doesn’t always come naturally, but here are three easy ways to instill this value in your kids

Sharing isn’t caring, especially when you have a twin brother to contend with. Just ask my nine-year-old identical twin boys.

Life’s unfair when you have a sibling who is not only your literal equal, but one who covets the same toys, treats and hugs that you want. Life’s hard, you know?

On a recent Saturday morning, I found myself playing referee between one boy who felt that his stack of hockey cards was his and his alone, and his brother, who was clearly of the mindset that, “What’s yours is mine, bro.”

With growing frustration, I attempted to stave off the impending storm through good, old-fashioned reason and a bit (okay, a lot) of desperation.

“Share with your brother,” I urged my son. “Why is that so hard?”

“But I don’t want to share,” he proclaimed, loudly. “I hate sharing and I especially hate sharing with him!”

Empathy was clearly in short supply. But according to Mary Gordon, the founder of a classroom program called Roots of Empathy that teaches kids “emotional literacy,” “empathy is essential for children to be able to make friends and to connect to others. And in the long term, empathy is considered the number one 21st century skill.” Plus, there’s a selfish reason to practice empathy. According to a 2010 study caring for others makes you happy—and vice versa. So, what’s a parent to do?

“The best way to teach children [compassion] is through your actions,” says Sara Dimerman, a psychologist and author in Toronto. “Modelling kindness is key. And as you’re modelling, say what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. For example, as you see someone struggling to manage the parcels in her hand, say, ‘Let’s give her a hand. Looks like she’s struggling.'”

Here’s how to foster compassion in all areas of your kids’ lives.

A mother and child in a tent reading a book by flashlight

At home

As with charity, compassion begins at home. One of the most important lessons that a parent can teach their child is to, “understand how another person feels and to be able to feel with them,” Gordon says.

Gordon recommends starting with something called “perspective taking,” which means starting a conversation about how characters in books or movies might be feeling during any given scene. Just don’t just start these conversations in the middle of an argument. “Children need opportunities to practice perspective taking in situations that are not heavy-laden with emotion,” Gordon says. “[During] children’s conflicts, emotions are high and it is not a good teachable moment. Bath time is a wonderful teachable moment.”

Just make sure you’re practicing empathy yourself, she says. Avoid blaming and shaming, and start questions with the more neutral “I wonder…” instead of more confrontational phrasing, like, “I wonder how you made your brother feel?”

During the hockey card debacle, I saw how easy it could be for a child to overlook or ignore the distress that their sibling may be feeling, especially when there’s an advantage to be had as a result. But, a simple talk about the merits of sharing yielded a new and positive perspective from both boys. (Photography By Aleksandar Nakic / iStock)

A little girl consoling her friend who looks sad

With friends

Your child has likely already started learning lessons about how feelings should be respected, that we care if someone is unhappy and we help if someone needs help at home. It’s only natural to apply those lessons to their friends, too. But, Gordon says, “it’s not necessary for parents to hover over playdates and micromanage interaction.” Instead, ask questions like, “What do you think your friend enjoyed doing with you today?” Or “What games does your friend not enjoy playing?” These conversations help children think about how their friends are experiencing playing with them, which is critical for learning empathy. (Photography By Wong Sze Fei / Adobe Stock)

Mother and child helping an elderly woman walk through an orchard

In your community

Children who see their parents showing empathy and kindness to others will follow suit and do the same in their own lives. Be your child’s first example of how to behave and they will emulate you in a positive way. (Photography By Andrey Bandurenko)

Need some inspiration for making empathy a part of your kids’ daily lives? Try:

Helping elderly neighbours: Younger people are often the light that an elderly person needs to brighten their day. Encourage and support your child in visiting with older neighbours or residents, either in their homes or in a local senior’s residence.

Volunteering at a community-based organization: Does your neighbourhood have a local community centre? If so, it’s likely that it also has several programs for kids, adults and seniors. Encouraging your child to volunteer in any number of the programs will teach them about giving back as well as spending time on what’s important.

Helping out at the local food bank: There’s nothing that exemplifies kindness and empathy than helping nourish another person, both nutritionally and emotionally. Volunteering at a food bank is one of the most compelling ways of teaching your child the importance of kindness.

Of course, these can’t be once-a-year activities—kids need to see behavior consistently for it to “stick.” But if your schedule doesn’t allow for weekly volunteering, don’t worry. “Demonstrating care and concern when family members have hurt feelings, hurt bodies or worries has a deep and lasting impact on children,” Gordon says. “[When] children learn how to care in their homes, they will be able to transfer these safe experiences of reaching out to help loved ones to reaching out to help strangers who are suffering.”

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