Empathy is the ability to identify with and feel for another person. It’s the powerful quality that halts violent and cruel behavior and urges us to treat others kindly. Empathy emerges naturally and quite early, which means our children are born with a huge built-in advantage for success and happiness.
Though children are born with the capacity for empathy, it must be nurtured or it will remain dormant. And there lies the problem: studies show that American teens today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were thirty years ago. That’s a dangerous trend for many reasons. First, it hurts our kids’ academic performance, relationships and can lead to bullying behaviors. Also, it correlates with more cheating and less resilience. And once children grow up, a lack of empathy hampers their ability to collaborate, innovate and problem-solve—all must-have skills for life-long success.
But there’s good news for parents. The latest science shows that empathy can be taught and nurtured. My new book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me-World (Simon & Schuster) pinpoints not only the forces causing the empathy crisis but also a framework for parenting that yields the results we all want: successful, happy kids who also are kind, moral, courageous and resilient. Here are ten simple ways that we can teach our kids to care about others and boost their empathy from UnSelfie, which offers over 500 simple ways.
1. Share signs of strong empathy. The more aware that kids are of what empathy sounds like, the more likely they are to use those behaviors in their daily lives. Let’s not assume our children know how to show others they care. Tune them up! For instance: “You look upset.” “I understand how you feel.” “It makes me feel sad that you’re hurt.” “I bet that hurts a lot. It happened to me, too.”
2. Acknowledge kind actions. One of the simplest ways of enhancing caring is by reinforcing the action as soon as it happens. So whenever you notice your child acting in sensitive and caring way, let her know how pleased it makes you feel: “I love how gentle you are with your baby sister. You pat her so softly, and it makes me happy knowing how caring you are.” It also helps children “see themselves” as a kind people and adopt that image of themselves.
3. Show the impact of caring. Kind acts – even small ones – can make a big difference in people’s lives, so point them out to help your child see the impact his actions made. “Grandma was so pleased when you called to thank her for the present.” “Josh, did you see the smile on Ryan’s face when you shared your toys?” Recognizing the impact will inspire your child to use that same behavior again – and again – until it becomes a habit
4. Ask often, “How does he feel?” One of the easiest ways to nurture your child’s sensitivity is to ask her to ponder how another person feels. As opportunities arise, pose the question often, using situations in books, TV and movies, as well as real life. “How do you think the mommy feels, knowing that her little girl just won the prize?” “The tornado destroyed most of the town here in Georgia; see it here on the map? How do you think the people feel?” “How do you think Daddy feels hearing that his mom is so sick?” Each question forces your child to stop and think about other people’s concerns, and nurtures sensitivity to their needs.
5. Share why you feel the way you do. One of the best ways to help sensitize kids to others’ feelings is to describe how you feel about situations and why: “I am frustrated; yesterday the auto body shop told me that fixing the car would cost five hundred dollars, and now they say it’s going to cost a lot more.” “I’m so tired. The barking dogs kept me up all night.”
6. Imagine how the person feels. To help your child identify with the feelings of others is to have him imagine how the other person feels about a specific circumstance. Suppose your child just sent a thank-you card to his aunt for the birthday present he received. “Pretend you’re Aunt Jen right now. You open up your mailbox and find this card. How will you feel when you read what it says?” You later can expand the imagining technique to include individuals your child has not personally met: “Pretend you’re a new neighbor, and you’re moving into this town and don’t know anyone. How will you feel?” Asking often, “How would you feel?” helps children grasp the needs and feelings of others.
7. Consciously model caring. Tune up your empathic behaviors so your child regularly sees you show concern for other people's “hurts and needs.” Then act on your concerns to comfort others so that your child can copy your actions. There are so many daily opportunities: watching your friend’s child, phoning a friend who is down, picking up trash, soothing a child, giving directions, asking someone how she is, baking cookies for your family. And be sure to tell your child how good it made you feel! The old saying, “Children learn what they live,” has a lot of truth to it
8. Ask, “How would you feel?” Ideally, we want our children to think about how their behavior affected the other person, but empathy does not always come naturally. A good place to start is by asking questions that help your child think about how she would feel if someone had done the same behavior to her. You might ask: “Lucas, how would you feel if Aaron yelled out that you can’t hit?” “If someone said that to you, how would you feel right now?”
9. Express your disapproval of uncaring behavior. Don’t be shy about telling your child why you consider her behavior to be insensitive. Plainly explain what concerns you about her actions so you make sure your child clearly understands why you disapprove. It will help your child shift her focus from herself and consider how her actions can affect other people. “I’m very concerned when I hear you treating your friends badly without considering their feelings. I expect you to treat people how you want to be treated.”
10. Find real ways for your child to gain a new point of view. Many children lack empathy because their experiences have never allowed them to think about perspectives other than their own. So provide opportunities for your child to experience different perspectives and views in your community. Depending on his age you might visit a nursing home, homeless shelter, center for the blind, animal shelter, or soup kitchen. The more your child experiences different perspectives, the more likely she will be able to empathize with others whose needs and views differ from hers.
There is no substitute for experiencing and witnessing empathy and caring. So look for opportunities for your child to experience the perspective of others so that he can understand what it feels like to walk in someone else’s shoes. The more our children see, hear or do caring behaviors, the more likely they’ll become the caring, compassionate people we hope.
Michele Borba, Ed.D. is an award-winning educational psychologist and an expert in parenting, bullying and character development and author of 22 books. Her latest, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, is now available in paperback. See micheleborba.com or follow her on twitter @MicheleBorba