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How Do You Teach Kids to Be Empathetic? (And Why It's Important)

Posted by Dr. Joan Simeo Munson

It wasn’t until my son came home from middle school one day with a story about witnessing some kids bullying a boy with disabilities that I was forced to take a long, hard look about what I was teaching my kids about empathy. Sure, I was aware of the importance of empathy: the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, promoting kindness, teaching tolerance. But this situation had me wondering: How exactly am I promoting empathy at home so that my kids can then do the same at school or in social situations?

A family meeting was called and my son reiterated what had happened. A small group of boys were engaging in name calling and teasing towards a boy in his class who has autism. I asked each of my children what they thought and they all said it sounded mean and they agreed that the boys deserved the suspension that they got. But then our conversation stalled. Time to dig deep into my psychologist’s hat and pull out a few probing questions, questions that I believe we should all be asking whenever bad behavior is either witnessed or practiced by our kids.

First, I asked them all, “How would you feel if someone called you those kinds of names?” Immediately, the conversation switched from this being someone elses problem to my kids internalizing what they would feel if they were on the receiving end of such bullying. After all, the definition of empathy is the identification with the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another. It’s important for all of our kids to ponder questions such as “How would I feel if….” and “What would happen if I were put in this situation?” My daughter (who’s only 6 and very sensitive) started to tear up and immediately said, “I would feel so, so sad!” My 9 year old son told us it would ruin his day. My 11 year old said it would be hard to forgive himself if he were mean to another person. Our conversation changed from what was previously an external problem to seriously discussing our own feelings and thoughts about a terrible situation. Slowly, I watched the idea of empathy creeping into the minds of my children.

While this conversation was great and I felt like we were making strides, it also seemed like I had to take it to the next level if my kids were really going to get this empathy thing. So I asked, “What do you think you should do when a situation like this comes up again?” This type of probing forces children to not just understand the definition of empathy, but spurs them into action, to be empathetic with others when needed. With my kids however, there was dead silence! So I reframed the question: “If you were the victim here, what would you have wanted the kids around you to do?” This, they got. My youngest piped up, “Tell the other kids to stop or tell a teacher.” My middle child (always ready to rumble) said, “Get in the other kids’ faces and protect the person who’s being bullied.” My oldest and most introspective child said he would think about it and get back to me. Fair enough, I thought. My kids were strategizing ways to be empathetic towards others right before my eyes.

By the way, if anyone reading this thinks I have perfectly well-behaved kids out of a television sitcom, my kids can be less than empathetic towards each other. In fact, they can be downright mean to one another. Now, I understand that a certain amount of infighting is going to occur among siblings so close in age, but I also feel it is important to teach them empathy with one another so they can transfer it to situations that arise outside of the home. So if you want your kids to be empathetic at school and with their friends, you need to lay down the law of what you expect out of them at home. This means no bullying each other (and let me tell you, I’ve seen plenty of that at times!), no name calling, no hitting, and no teasing. My kids know exactly what the consequences will be when they “can’t help it” and the meanness begins. On our chalkboard in the kitchen there is the phrase, “Treat Others as You Want to Be Treated”, which is, after all, the hallmark of empathy. When your kids know what you expect of them, you’d be surprised at how well they rise to the occasion.

A few days passed and my oldest son came home from school. “Mom,” he said, “I figured out what to do to help someone who is being teased.” Intrigued, I asked him what his thoughts were and listened as my son told me how he invited this boy with autism to sit with him and his friends at lunch each day so he wouldn’t feel left out. Lesson learned.


About Dr. Joan Simeo Munson

Dr. Joan Simeo Munson earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver. She has worked with incarcerated individuals, families, adolescents, and college students in a variety of settings, including county and city jails, community mental health centers, university counseling centers, and hospitals. She also has a background in individual, group, and couples counseling. Dr. Munson lives in Colorado with her husband and three energetic children. She currently has a private practice in Boulder where she sees adults, couples and adolescents.

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