How to Raise Empathetic Kids

Are today’s kids less empathetic? One recent study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review suggests so. Findings showed that college students of today are 40% less empathetic than those of the 1980s, with empathy scores dropping noticeably since 2000. It’s a troubling trend for child psychologists, bringing new emphasis to the importance of teaching empathy to children everywhere.

Empathy, quite simply the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is a valuable skill for us to develop early in life. “Empathy gives you other people’s perspectives and allows you to step in and improve the lives of other people,” explains Katherine Firestone, founder of the Fireborn Institute, an organization that works with parents to help children both academically and socially.

Firestone says that while we want our kids to have that understanding and act upon it, children are not born having empathy and instead tend to be “all about me”, understanding only themselves and their own needs. “No kid just grows up knowing how to do that. We absolutely have to teach kids empathy.” A good way to observe this is to watch young toddlers, who tend to play side by side rather than together, says Firestone. Kids don’t naturally understand other people or know how to incorporate others into their play, but gaining this understanding is key to childhood development.

Starting the empathy discussion early

“Preschool is a really good time, especially because that’s when children are starting to develop those relationships with other kids and getting into fights,” Firestone explains. For an early exercise in understanding the feelings of others, she recommends reading picture books together and talking about the faces of the characters— do they look happy, angry, or sad? “That’s going to help them to start to understand emotions, and that’s super important. You have to have a good emotional vocabulary to have empathy, so you can understand how other people are feeling.”

Empathy in the age of cyberbullying

For grade school children and adults alike, the issues of bullying and cyberbullying have given new relevance to the value of empathy, particularly when it comes to how we use social media. “Empathy is important especially with cyberbullying because when you are posting things online you feel so distant from it,” says Firestone. “It doesn’t necessarily feel like there are consequences, so it’s a lot easier to not have empathy for your victims because it feels less real.” Firestone points out though that a lot of what parents see as cyberbullying is actually just kids trying to figure out what is socially acceptable behavior. Rather than telling kids they can’t use Instagram or Snapchat, parents should have an ongoing dialogue with children to help them navigate digital communication. When kids see or experience cyberbullying, parents can ask them how that makes them feel and how they think it makes others feel. “That opens up the conversation, so you can use it as a way to help your kid develop empathy,” says Firestone.

Teaching your kids to be “upstanders”

It’s not only bullies or their victims who can use empathy to stop the cycle of bullying. Bystanders may not want to tattle or intervene for fear of becoming a bully’s next target, but in her book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, Michele Borba, Ed.D., encourages bystanders to reduce bullying by becoming “upstanders” or bully busters. She explains that empathy is a key antidote to bullying, and that empowered bystanders who empathize with a bully’s target can do things such as befriend the victim, use distractions, speak out, and tell an adult when someone is in danger. It’s not only bullies or their victims who can use empathy to stop the cycle of bullying. Bystanders may not want to tattle or intervene for fear of becoming a bully’s next target, but in her book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, Michele Borba, Ed.D., encourages bystanders to reduce bullying by becoming “upstanders” or bully busters. She explains that empathy is a key antidote to bullying, and that empowered bystanders who empathize with a bully’s target can do things such as befriend the victim, use distractions, speak out, and tell an adult when someone is in danger.

Cultivating Empathy at Every Stage

Katherine Firestone shares empathy development activities for parents to help their children at any age.

Pre-school
• Read picture books together. Look at the faces and talk about what each person is feeling. Then ask, “Can you make a face like that?”
• Use colored fridge magnets to convey how you’re feeling each day. Green can mean happy, blue can mean sad, and red can mean angry. Change your magnet every day. Your child will start to tune into your feelings and start talking about his own feelings in colors. Give him his own magnets if he wants them.

Young Children
• While you are watching a movie or reading a book and you have emotions, tell your child. For example, “When Dory got lost in Finding Dory, I was really upset. I felt really concerned she would be lonely and wouldn’t be able to find her way home.”
• Talk with your kids about how everyone has an invisible bucket. When we are happy, our bucket is full. When we are sad, it’s empty. When we do nice things for others, we add to their bucket and to our own because it feels good to be kind. When someone is mean to us, water drips out. Our buckets have lids, so we can put on our lid so others can’t hurt us.

Middle School
• Develop a family motto. Talk with your children about what’s important to your family by saying things like, “Who are we? What do we stand for? We are inclusive. We are kind. We are brave.” Then, have a deeper discussion about what those things mean.
• Develop a family motto. Talk with your children about what’s important to your family by saying things like, “Who are we? What do we stand for? We are inclusive. We are kind. We are brave.” Then, have a deeper discussion about what those things mean.
• Make kindness a part of the discussion. Ask children, “What did you do that was kind today?” before you ask, “How did you do on that test?”

High School
• Model the behavior. The biggest way kids learn is by watching their parents and mimicking the behavior. So, if you want your child to be empathetic, you should model that behavior. Volunteer. Be kind. Smile. Hold doors.
• At dinner every night, ask your kids for “the goods”— one good thing you did, one good thing someone else did, and just one good thing that happened that day. This works on gratitude, which not only makes you happier, it helps you to be a kinder person, to get more satisfaction out of relationships, and it enhances your empathy

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