Teaching children empathy
In today’s world, empathy often seems to be in short supply. Every day, the headlines are full of politicians locking horns, celebrities firing insults at each other and stories of bullying, racism and hatred.
‘Our world has never needed more empathy, kindness and compassion,’ says Avril McDonald, author of the Feel Brave series of books about big feelings.
The next generation has the power to make a big difference, and we parents can’t underestimate the importance of raising our children to be caring, empathetic beings.
What is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand and share someone else’s feelings.
‘I describe it as being able to put yourself in the shoes of another person and feel what they might feel in a situation – such as feeling hurt if someone has said something unkind, or feeling frustrated if they can’t master a skill,’ says Angela Cox, mindset mentor and creator of The Happy Path Journal.
Empathy isn’t the same as kindness. ‘Doing nice things for people, giving your time or showing you care fall under the banner of kindness,’ Angela explains.
Kindness is, however, often motivated by empathy. For example, if your child can see that a friend is upset because they’re being left out of a game, they’re experiencing empathy; if they then invite the friend to join their game, they’re showing kindness.
Why empathy matters
Being kind and empathetic is more than just being a ‘nice person.’ It’s vital for building relationships in childhood and into the future.
‘It’s an essential life skill that underpins a child’s ability to be a good friend, a good learner, and later, a good parent, colleague and citizen,’ agrees Miranda McKearney, founder of EmpathyLab and chair of judges for the 2019 Read for Empathy guides, which recommend books for four- to 16-year-olds to develop their empathy skills.
Being empathetic helps children develop emotional intelligence. ‘Teaching kids to consider the feelings of others will help them to understand and articulate their own feelings too, leading to improved wellbeing and mental health,’ Angela explains.
Educationally, empathy matters, too. Reading comprehension often involves children inferring how characters might be feeling, and it also plays an important part in partner and group work, PSHE lessons, debates and circle time. It even feeds into subjects like history (imagining what life was like for people in different historical periods) and drama (creating characters with believable actions and emotions).
In a tech-driven world, developing empathy helps children relate well to others online and don’t get caught up in cyber-bullying or trolling. ‘With the rise of artificial intelligence, it’s critical that children learn empathy in order to manage it for the world’s greater good,’ says Avril.
Empathy is also crucial in preventing bullying, and in building tolerance for other people and their racial background, sexuality, faith, politics and other traits that are key to their sense of identity.
When empathy doesn’t come easily
Empathy can be a tricky concept for children to master. ‘Children can be very self-centred and aren't always adept at seeing the bigger picture,’ Angela explains. ‘This is not helped by an age where narcissism is on the increase, and many of our children's role models are focused on “self.”’
Some children struggle with empathy because it has never been shown to them. ‘Children who come from traumatic backgrounds, for example, may not have had an empathetic adult alongside them, so have never seen it in action,’ Miranda says.
Excessive screentime could contribute to difficulties in developing empathy. ‘Children are communicating with each other through screens rather than face to face, and are therefore losing opportunities to practise empathy with each other,’ Avril adds.
Empathy is a skill that needs to be practised, which means that families have a vital role in helping children learn to be empathetic.
‘Parents have a huge part to play, as the amount of empathy a child has depends largely on the environment they are exposed to,’ says Angela. ‘How parents show empathy will impact how their children will.’
Schools, too, need to teach children empathy through good role-modelling. ‘They have an important role in providing empathetic adults who children can learn from,’ Miranda says.
11 ways to teach empathy
‘I believe every child has the ability to show empathy and kindness,’ says Angela. So how can we help our children become kinder, more empathetic people?
1. Build their emotional vocabulary. ‘A lot of children have limited understanding of their own emotions, which makes it very difficult for them to understand anyone else’s,’ says Miranda. Help them identify and name their emotions as they crop up: ‘I can see you’re frustrated that your LEGO model keeps breaking.’
2. Practise random acts of kindness with your child. These are demonstrations of kindness without expecting anything in return, such as helping someone tidy up in class or baking cakes to take on a playdate. ‘Carry them out then report back on what happened and how they think it made the recipient feel,’ Avril suggests.
3. Help children interpret expressions and body language. ‘Teaching them to read the faces of others and guess their emotions, or encouraging them to play-act emotions themselves, will help them connect with and detect the different feelings humans experience,’ says Angela.
4. Read all about it. ‘Books are pivotal for teaching children about empathy,’ says Miranda. ‘Reading about the characters’ feelings helps children move beyond their own experiences and towards understanding other people better.’
5. Be an empathy role model. ‘It’s so important to be present, listen carefully to your child when they have a problem and let them know that you understand how they feel,’ Angela explains. Next time your child is crying, for example, avoid the temptation to say, ‘Stop crying,’ and instead try, ‘I can see that something has upset you. Shall we talk about it?’
6. Use role-play and props. ‘If your child has failed to show empathy, try reenacting the scenario, with them playing the part of the other person, to give them an idea of their different perspective,’ says Avril. ‘You can also act it out yourself using toys, and ask your child questions about how the other person might be feeling.’
7. Explore the roots of unkindness. ‘If your child has been unkind, ask why,’ suggests Angela. ‘Speaking to your child about their behaviour, understanding why they are doing it and helping them see why it is unacceptable, before finally looking for solutions, is more powerful than shouting and sending them to bed.’
8. Embark on a group project. ‘One of the best ways to build empathy is to get children working on a task together, like a gardening project,’ says Avril. ‘This needs to be managed carefully if there’s a history of unkindness between them, but can be very effective.’
9. Look for daily examples of empathy. ‘At the dinner table, try asking your child, “What did you do today that was kind to someone?” or, “Did you see anyone doing something kind today?”’ Often, we put too much focus on what children have been learning, and neglect to ask what they’ve been doing.
10. Widen their worldview. ‘Visiting the local night shelter or food bank, or doing something for charity, can help children witness what other people experience and think through how they can become a force for good in the world,’ says Miranda.
11. Set limits on screentime. ‘It’s so important to moderate device time and give children as many opportunities as possible to socialise, play and interact with each other in order to cultivate empathy,’ says Avril.
Best kids' books for building empathy
The Sneetches and Other Stories by Dr Seuss (age 5-8)
Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae (age 4-7)
The Wolf’s Colourful Coat by Avril McDonald (age 4-7)
Voices in the Park by Anthony Brown (age 5-7)
The Boy At the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Rauf (age 8+)
The Bubble Boy by Stuart Foster (age 10+)