Why is instilling empathy in children so important? Studies show that children who are taught to feel and show empathy are more likely to possess stronger social skills and be compassionate and helpful to others.
As a stepmother of eight-year-old triplets, I find numerous opportunities to model empathy and talk to them often about “standing in someone else’s shoes.” (With triplets who often share clothing, this can sometimes be taken quite literally!) One way I teach empathy is through caring for our pets when they are ill and talking about how sad I feel for them because they don’t feel well. Another way is being especially quiet on the mornings their father needs to sleep in because he worked late the night before. I explain how we are showing we care for Dad when we help him get the rest he needs. Other times, while watching family movies together, I take the time to express happiness for characters when something positive happens to them.
This last Tuesday night, I was very pleased to see my efforts to model empathy unfold before my eyes. Upon returning home from a busy work day, I walked in to see that our typical not-so-tidy home looked immaculate. All three of my stepchildren ran to give me a warm welcoming hug, while excitedly awaiting my response. I said, “Wow! The house looks amazing!” to which Haley proudly announced, “We cleaned it for you!”
Thanking them, I pulled them in closer. It felt so good to come home to a picked up, organized home. I asked their father what had inspired the kids to clean the house. He said, “Well, on the way home from school, I told them that you were tired from two very busy days at work and would need some relaxation time tonight. Haley came up with the idea to clean the house for you, and they all couldn’t wait to do it when they got home.” He then explained what each of the kids had done to pitch in. When I heard about all their hard work, I was overcome with gratitude. It was clear that empathy inspired my stepchildren to make my day better.
Do my stepchildren practice empathy all the time? No. After all, it’s a normal part of development for young children to be focused on themselves. It’s not until around the age of 7 that children appear to fully experience empathy for others — and every child is different.
It is never too early to model, emphasize, and teach children about the importance of empathy. Through repetition of these efforts, empathy will gradually become part of your child’s natural behavior.
Monica Reed has worked with children with emotional disabilities and their families for over 15 years in homes, schools, and mental health settings. She is an identical twin, a stepmother to triplets, and has two loving dogs. Monica has a Masters in School Counseling.