How to Raise Empathetic Kids
Simple Ways Parents Can Cultivate Compassion
by Carrie Jackson
Empathy is the foundation of a caring society. While we are all born with a certain amount, cultivating it is a skill that can be strengthened with practice, and it is critical that the learning process start early, say childhood educators. An empathetic child can better manage their own emotional responses and understand how someone else might be feeling. Studies show that children that practice empathy are less likely to bully and better suited to collaborative environments, setting them up for academic and professional success.
According to educator Traci Baxley, of Boca Raton, Florida, empathy in children is developed over time and with repetition. “The earlier we begin to model empathy with our children, the more they will mimic the characteristics associated with the awareness and care of others. Teaching and modeling empathy early supports children’s emotion regulation development and contributes to creating safe spaces in our homes for children to feel nurtured, valued and cared for,” she says.
Empathy often starts with listening.
As a speaker, coach and author of Social Justice Parenting: How to Raise Compassionate, Anti-Racist, Justice-Minded Kids in an Unjust World, Baxley uses empathy as a tool for fostering civic-minded awareness. “Empathy is foundational to achieving social justice and creating a world where everyone has a fair chance to live a full, productive life. Social justice requires us to see each other’s perspectives, circumstances and lived experiences through the lens of empathy and compassion. It’s the only way to live in the space of active hope that we can create a world free from inequities and injustices,” she says.
One innovative program, Toronto-based Roots of Empathy, began in 1996 after a mother brought her baby into a kindergarten classroom for children to relate to. With the aid of an instructor, they were encouraged to understand the baby’s needs and feelings, and to take the baby’s perspective. So successfully did the interaction reduce bullying behavior that the program has since spread globally, reaching 1 million children in K-8 classes. “In school, students are taught to read, but if we don’t teach them to relate, then we can expect failed societies,” says founder Mary Gordon. “By interpreting the feelings of the tiny baby and sharing when they had the same feelings, the students develop emotional literacy and awareness. This enables them to build connections and healthy relationships, which leads to inclusion and integration.”
By parents modeling empathy and vulnerability around their children, the foundation is laid for open conversations, she says. “At the dinner table, say, 'Today I felt embarrassed when I was called on at work and felt unprepared.’ Identifying and normalizing feelings is the best way to show them it’s something you value and encourage their natural instincts. Kids learn best through observation rather than instruction.”
At The Children’s Museum, in Oak Lawn, an Illinois nonprofit, play is an essential part of childhood development. Executive Director Adam Woodworth says the institution focuses on kindness and gratitude to build a foundation of empathy. “Helping children find their empathy for others develops strong friendships built on trust and understanding. Parents can incorporate empathy into explanations for everyday interactions such as sharing toys. Instead of focusing on the negative of giving up their toy for someone else, talk about how happy the other child would feel,” he suggests.
Empathy often starts with listening. “Teaching children how to listen for context is a skill that is developed over time. Parents can help by asking open-ended questions while reading, such as, 'Why do you think Frog didn’t want to invite Snake to the party?’ This helps cultivate both understanding and empathy, acknowledges their feelings as real and validates them in a way that they know we care,” he says.
Baxley stresses that it is imperative for parents to model the behaviors they want to cultivate in front of their children. “The way we show up for our children is how they will show up for others,” she says. “We have to pour these habits of empathy and compassion into our children in the privacy of our homes if we expect them to know how to show up for others in that way out in the world.”
Carrie Jackson is a Chicago-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings magazine. Connect at CarrieJacksonWrites.com.