Raising empathetic children

Did you know that starting as early as age 6 months, babies can gauge your response to another person in the room or a particular situation? How you greet a neighbor or a stranger can tell your baby a lot. It’s called empathy. It’s more than just teaching your children to play nice with one another. Empathy is the ability to understand how someone else is feeling and to respond with care, compassion and concern.

According to Zero To Three, children who are raised to be empathetic understands that he/she is a separate and is their own person; knows that others can have different thoughts and feelings than he/she has; can recognize common such as happiness, surprise, anger, disappointment and sadness; is able to look at a particular situation and imagine how they might feel in this moment and can imagine what response might be appropriate or comforting in that particular situation.

You are your child’s first teacher. Raising your child to be empathetic begins with you. Here’s how you build empathy in your child.

• Understand first. Recognize your child’s emotions and validate them with your own caring ways. Sometimes when a child displays tear-producing emotions, you rush to try to fix it right away, to make the feelings go away and protect them from any pain. These feelings are part of life and ones that children need to learn to cope with. In fact, labeling and validating difficult feelings actually helps children learn to handle them better or help another child feeling the same way.

• Help your child understand if they upset another child. Show your child how to deal with the conflict in a calm manner. It is suggested to use “play” as a way of talking through these scenarios.

• Be a role model for your child’s behavior. When you help others, they will want to too.

• Teach words about feelings and emotions. Together create faces in a mirror, computer or whiteboard and talk about how the expressions make the children feel-happy, mad, sad. Go ahead and make it fun by allowing your child to use emojis.

• Display pictures depicting various emotions and empathic scenes. Use a camera to capture thoughtful interactions in your home, then mount the pictures and label them at your child’s eye level.

• Keep the dialogue open. Ask a child who is upset, what would make him feel better. Ask open-ended questions to help encourage empathy. By asking, “How can we help him feel better about his broken car?” children will become independent thinkers, finding meaningful ways to show care and compassion.

In the words of Barack Obama, “Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins. And it’s up to you to make that happen. Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.”

Imagine the kind of peaceful world we could create if we teach children to be empathetic.


Kube is a director for the Iowa River

Valley Early Childhood Area Board.


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