Teaching Your Kids to Act with Empathy

Posted March 20, 2009 by

I think one of the most important things to introduce to our kids is the idea of empathy. Empathy says you should visit people when they’re sick in hospitals. Empathy says that we should want to feed the hungry. Certainly over the last 15 or 20 years, for a vast majority of the population, this quality has been lost or clouded over by other things. Over the last couple of years, with the sharing of the pain that we’ve felt nationally, we’ve also seen an elevated sense of empathy, too.  People know what it’s like for the people who have nothing, because many have less.

There are a lot of creative ways to teach empathy to your children. It’s the whole idea of practicing that art of compassion, of really stimulating that part of your kid’s brain. It’s important for them to learn that there are other people in this world and that it’s good to share; it’s good to give out of our own hearts.  I’ve known families who have taken their kids down to homeless shelters to serve meals. Not only is that a way for the family to give back in gratitude for what they’ve received, but it’s also a way to teach their child that if you have something, you should share with others who have less.

So, there are things you can do for others who are in need. Tell your kids to always hold the door. There are also little things like that you can teach your child—the basic decent things in society that have been lost—like saying “please” and “thank you.” Believe it or not, all those social niceties have a component of empathy to them. Personally, I think it’s very important to do exercises with kids to help develop empathy and to show them they aren’t the center of the universe.

How do you teach empathy to your child?

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  1. awstevens Report

    I think teaching empathy is a wonderful idea. I dont remember my parents doing anything to teach me empathy but I have a love of doing things for others. Community service and volunteering my time to help in schools and with childrens after school programs is something that I have always loved. I do know that my mom was a stickler for having good manners when I was a child. When I have children of my own, I hope to instill all these values in them so they have the same love for helping people that I do and so it will seem to come naturally for them.

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  2. Ashley Report

    I agree that empathy should definitely be introduced to kids early on in life. If everyone was more empathetic towards others & their current situations the world would be a much better place. Its small things like that, that can really make a difference in someones life!

    I also think that empathy can without a doubt be learned and I think that a childs home life will reflect how empathetic one grows up to be. The sooner your child is exposed to this type of behavior, the easier it will be picked up and maintained.

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  3. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor Report

    Sweetie: I’m wondering how old your stepson is? There’s a great book on teaching empathy called, “Teaching Children Empathy: The Social Emotion” with lessons and worksheets. (It’s designed for kids age 5-12 or so.) It might be worth a try if you haven’t looked into anything like this yet. Good luck to you!

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  4. sweetie Report

    I honestly don’t know if empathy can be learned. My step son who I believe is ODD and ADD (are currently getting him tested), is very self-centered and looks out for #1….himself. When I present situations to him his response is …”I dont’ get it”. I think some kids simply don’t have the capacity to understand or show empathy due to their brain function. It’s not that we don’t try to teach him, he just doesn’t have the capacity to understand. which makes things frustrating.

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  5. Louise Sanborn Report

    Dear PHX Suns:
    Boy, I can really relate to your situation. When I was in high school, my mom and I moved 3 different times. (My parents divorced when I was 14.) I attended three different high schools in 4 years, and believe it or not, it eventually turned out to be a good experience. (While I didn’t mind moving the first time, I was very unhappy with the second move, initially.) I will say that what helped me get out of my funk the most was finding a job and making friends. With that in mind, is there any way your daughter can get involved in something she really loves in Phoenix? If she likes animals, maybe she can work at a local shelter, for example. I know that it’s hard to motivate a stubborn, surly teen (I was definitely one of them, believe me!) but I believe that everyone has something they dream of doing and are interested in pursuing. Could you sit down with your daughter and make up a list of things she’s never done but is interested in trying? (If she doesn’t want to make the list with you, perhaps she could send you an email or write a list and hand it to you later.) Summer might be a great time to get her involved in camp counseling, working at a stable, outdoor activities, etc.
    I hope this is helpful, and please hang in there! My mom refers to my teen years as “The 4 Years We Didn’t Get Along” but thankfully, we got through them and are very close today. Good luck!

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  6. phx suns Report

    My daughter was at the end of her 16th year when my ex-husband told me he could not handle her anymore and she needed to move to PHX with me. In the past I wanted her with me but he was going to fight it because I left him and I could not put my kids through that. So, I allowed them to live with him, with me flying to see them every week until they reached the age of 16. Of course I wanted her, I always wanted her. As she moved in, she had a bad attitude, naturally. She left behind high-school at a crucial age. She would say, “This place is horrible, the kids here don’t do the things I use to do, partying, drugs, sex.” Yes, I do not allow that at all and we live in a community where that is not accepted. Great. However, now she has no ambition, her grades are bad, she blames me for everything, the move, the culture here, the friends who are not there anymore. She refuses to study, get her drivers license, get a job, etc. I am at my end of the ropes, eventhough, naturally I would never kick her out at this age. Help.

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  7. Dale Sadler Report

    For many children struggling with behavior issues (self-mutilators, anti-social, ODD), engaging in empathetic activities can help with their recovery and behavior change. Our society encourages children to be self-centered. When these individuals don’t like what they see on the inside, they react in very negative ways. True happiness can only be found when we think of others. This is what makes life really fulfilling.

    In her book, Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, Meg Meeker, MD, discusses that humility and empathy are what were most affective in helping her female clients. It was also one of the single most crucial factors in those girls who were happy and successful.

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