It takes a conscientious parent to consider ‘teaching’ their child empathy! Empathy may not have been something you were taught in your childhood. In fact, most of us may even believe that empathy is innate and not learned! Fostering empathy and more importantly, coaching your child on the right way to respond to their feelings of empathy is a great way to set the foundation for a compassionate human being to grow on.
Why Is Teaching Empathy To Kids Important?
Empathy helps us see another person’s point of view and feel how they might be feeling. When your child is empathetic, he can make friends easily, avoid fights and find resolutions to conflicts. But it doesn’t stop at that!
Empathy is the core value in Emotional Quotient (EQ) – the ability to recognise one’s own emotions and that of others. Children who grow up with high levels of E.Q are more likely to find academic success, be effective in leadership roles and generally find more happiness and satisfaction in personal relationships later in life.
When Does A Child Learn Empathy?
Children begin to show signs of genuine empathy at 2 years of age and above. For example, a toddler, seeing his mother cry, may bring her a toy he likes playing with, expecting that would make her feel better!
However, empathy isn’t always clear cut to be a positive thing. Sometimes, children do not know how to respond to the empathetic feelings they are experiencing. For example, imagine a child was crying from a stomach-ache he had. Other children may try to console him. Yet another might punch him in the stomach! This is not because he isn’t empathetic per se; it is because he doesn’t know how to show it!
10 Effective Ways To Teach Empathy To Your Children
Nurturing empathy in your child involves a combination of both behavioural training, which continues through life, and the use or cognitive games aimed at toddlers and young children.
1. Be An Empathetic Parent
Raising an empathetic child requires an empathetic parent. An empathetic parent is one who is well attuned to the emotional workings of their child’s mind. When you are easily able to imagine their point of view, it prevents you from snapping at them in times of instant rage. Instead of baring your emotions by meanly displaying them, speak to your child about them. Tell them “You have made me extremely frustrated”, “You have disappointed me”, etc. in a calm tone. This sets their empathetic thought process in motion. Note that a child who is sharply scolded may feel resentment more than understanding.
2. Talk About Feelings
An uninitiated child simply goes through their day feeling happy, sad, angry, tired, etc. without ever stopping to think why or how these feelings came to be or what those feelings even are! It is always good to talk about feelings to your children, teaching them the names for it and training them to identify what their emotions are. It also helps them to hear you speak of what you are feeling.
When a child is able to identify and name their emotions, they are better equipped to identify those feelings in others too!
3. Be A Role Model
Your child takes cues from you on words to speak, grammar, body language, self-restraint and everything else. So it is little wonder that they depend on their observations of you to learn how to treat other people! Treating others with kindness and being understanding towards someone who made a mistake encourages your child to be the same! For example, If you have been brought the wrong order at a restaurant, be polite to the waiter. Later, ask your child how they think the waiter must’ve felt about making that mistake.
4. Teach Empathy For Oneself
In our culture, are simply expected to work hard and follow the rules and traditional familial roles. Very few of us are brought up being told that our feelings are important or that there is any meaning in them. Such a situation can create individuals who suffer in silence throughout life.
In order for us to have empathy towards others, one should first have empathy for oneself. Encourage your child to talk about how they feel and teach them the validity of their feelings. Some feelings, like anger, may not be worth pursuing, while others need to be addressed with action – this is an important lesson that every child needs to learn. Being empathetic does not mean allowing others to take advantage of you or get the better of you while you remain silent!
5. Cognitive Games
Empathy games for children can boost their ability to identify emotions in others. In the Smiley Game, simply pull up the emoticons in your phone and challenge your kid to identify what each smiley is feeling – are they happy or sad, calm or angry, etc. This same game could be played with photos or even with the cartoons they are watching by asking them to identify what a character is feeling.
6. Role-Playing Games
Empathy activities for kids do not always need to be sought out. A lot of games that children, especially girls, play such as Playing House and hosting tea parties for toys naturally put them into the shoes of somebody else. Role–playing encourages them to express their feelings verbally and through actions. You can step in at certain points to ask “What does ‘your character’ feel” or “Why ‘your character’ feels this?” By referring to the character as a third person, the child will feel removed from their own emotions while identifying the emotions of the character – this is the essence of empathy!
7. Identifying With Characters In Books
Reading a book that tells the story of one or more people, is essentially an exercise in empathy! This is why teaching empathy through children’s literature is highly effective. We feel a bond with the character in the pages because we see the ups and downs in their life! After reading the book, ask questions like “Why did you like the character?”, “Was there anyone in the book that you did not like?”, etc. to help the child disassociate their empathetic feelings and see it as a separate entity from their own feelings.
8. Helping Out In The House
Barring age and gender-defined roles, ask your child to help out with household chores – whether it be helping mommy, daddy or the grandparents in what they are doing. More than lending a serving hand, giving them this “responsibility” once in a while will help them see how others spend their days and the troubles they take in keeping up the house!
9. Positive Reinforcement
If you observe your child perform a genuine act of kindness, praise them for it. You shouldn’t go overboard with lavish praise, but only enough to let them know that you observed it and that you appreciated it. You can also discuss the feelings of the person who your child showed kindness to. Do not reward them with something tangible like a toy or a treat for this though – you don’t want them to associate kindness to rewards! Positive Reinforcement is much more effective than the other side of the coin – punitive action – in how to develop empathy in a child.
10. Help Them Identify Themselves As An Empathetic Person
Help your child develop a moral identity by consciously talking to them about it. Encourage them to assess their own actions with the question “what kind of person would do that?” If a child is praised for a kindly act with the words, “You are such a helpful person” (words indicating the type of person they are) rather than “What a kind thing to do!”, (speaking of this one act in seclusion) they are more likely to repeat the positive behaviour.
When your child is empathetic, they can even better gauge how you, the parent, are feeling! Children will naturally try to cheer you up when you are sad, alleviate tension when you are stressed and laugh with you when you are happy. An empathetic child is every parent’s strength. As they grow older, and you with them, they will be your steadfast partners in the journey of life.