How to Raise Empathetic Kids

You know it’s important, but do you know why? Or how to cultivate this crucial character trait? Here are some practical tips for every age.

children-walking-umbrella-empathy
Photo by Kinzie Riehm/Getty Images

Everyone is talking about empathy right now, from politicians to school counselors. And in an age where cyberbullying and racial tensions are front and center, it’s easy to see why. Being empathetic means you enter into another’s reality, whether that is someone’s pain or simply a different way of life. (And it’s different from sympathy, which is feeling for someone; empathy is feeling with someone. Think of it as being in a painting instead of just observing it.) Empathy is, essentially, valuing another person and his experience. And the world certainly needs more of that. If you want to grow it in your child, follow this advice.

Infants and Toddlers

We are all born with a capacity for some empathy. (A 2016 research review published in Infant Behavior and Development noted that day-old babies show more distress over other infant cries than their own.) But around age three, the empathy that children are born with starts to become tainted by cultural and environmental factors. Toddlers begin to be more selective about whom to help and perceive those different from them as, well, different. That’s an innocuous thing. (People are different.) But that’s why empathy—identifying with people who are different and having compassion for their experience—needs to be reinforced early on.

Prioritize Face Time.
Emotional literacy, or correctly interpreting facial expressions, is vital in developing empathy. It’s harnessed through continuous exposure to face-to-face interactions. “Face-to-face encounters are where we learn to put body language, eye contact, and voice tone together,” says Sherry Turkle, Ph.D., a professor of social studies of science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. You know where this is headed: Every time you talk to your child without looking up from a screen, not only are you missing opportunities to read his face and better understand what he is feeling but your child (especially if he’s young) is also missing an opportunity to do the same and build his emotional vocabulary.

Involve Characters.
A 2016 study published in Journal of Children and Media showed that preschoolers who actively watched PBS Kids’ Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood showed higher levels of empathy than did those who watched a nature program. Why? “Kids may learn better from TV characters that are relatable and attractive and who talk directly to them, like real friends,” says Eric Rasmussen, Ph.D., the study author and an assistant professor in the College of Media and Communication at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock. The lesson: Use admirable characters in books and shows to drive home important points, like kindness, generosity, and altruism.

Elementary School

Children are learning the language of empathy, but they are not yet fluent. While they can recognize that two people can feel differently in the same situation, they are more comfortable around those like them. That’s one reason why bullying starts to pick up at this age.

Bring Back Playtime.
As children move into elementary school, parents start to put more emphasis on learning instead of play. “Without unstructured play time—at least some time every day—kids are missing opportunities to learn about social cues and negotiations,” says Doris Bergen, Ph.D., a distinguished professor of educational psychology emerita at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio. Simple, unstructured play is an effective way to build empathy. In addition, games contribute to moral development as well as to many cognitive skills—they’re essentially dress rehearsals for the real world.

Follow The Platinum Rule.
It’s this: Do unto others as they would have you do unto them. In other words, think about how that person would want you to treat him, not how you would like to be treated. “Kids need to understand that someone else might see the world differently,” says Roman Krznaric, Ph.D., the founding faculty member at the School of Life, in London, and the author of Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It. This rule applies beautifully during playdates. Before your son’s friends come over, have him brainstorm how the guests might want to play. If he reaches for his soccer ball, say, “I know you love trains, but does James? Last time he really enjoyed painting.”

Stop “Ing-ing.”
You know, solving, rescuing, helicopter parenting. It’s important in raising self-sufficient, confident kids, but it’s also crucial in raising empathetic ones. When you intervene, you send the vibe that kids need help. Consequently, kids’ self-esteem, confidence, and courage to deal with adversity starts to wane. If they lack adequate coping skills, seeing other people’s pain can add to their own distress and shut down empathy completely.

Start Empowering.
Helping your kids confidently act on their own can have a (good) snowball effect. According to research reviewed in the 2016 Children and Youth Services Review journal, when one person intervenes to stop bullying, the likelihood that others will intervene rises. The kids on the sideline? They are liable to be less confident, sure, but also less empathetic. (It’s all connected.) Kids lacking in empathy more often joined in the bullying or remained passive.

Tweens and Teens

Get ready to see an empathy slump when kids enter middle school. “Fitting in with a group is key, and as they enter the teen years, the culture of peer pressure is more likely to activate parts of the brain that take risks than those that do the right thing,” says Michele Borba, Ed.D., an educational psychologist and the author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. The empathy channel is most open when a child feels OK with who he is. But as stress begins to mount, he may start to cope by thinking of himself first.

Limit Social Media (Hahaha).
As if you haven’t heard it before: Spending too much time on Instagram and Snapchat shifts the focus to superficial things and amplifies self-absorption. (It’s easier to get likes for looking cool than being kind.) Constant comparisons replace concern for others with vanity. “Empathy is always we, not me,” says Borba. “It’s hard to feel with someone when you want to be better than they are.”

Look for Flash Moments.
“Those are the moments of insight—where you realize that you’re totally wrong about your assumptions—that shift you to a new empathic level,” says Krznaric. The renowned social psychologist Elliot Aronson found that spending just one hour a day collaborating builds empathy for those whom you would otherwise ignore because of how they look. That could come on a sports field or on a school project, but you can also make those moments happen. They can be small. Your teens don’t have to build houses in Haiti to get a new perspective; visiting another part of town or talking to classmates who they don’t normally socialize with can be eye-opening. A 2015 study published in Disability and Rehabilitation showed that children ages 7 to 16 who reported regular contact with those with disabilities demonstrated less anxiety and increased empathy about those interactions. “As we grow up, we lose the curiosity to find out about strangers and their lives,” says Krznaric. “Often it is exactly those people who are the most interesting and can teach us tolerance.”

Talk About the News.
Discussing world events when appropriate is another way to reinforce empathy. Resist the urge to flip to The Voice and instead talk to your children (in an age-appropriate way) about a scary or difficult situation. Say something like “This is a horrible thing that happened, and this is why people were driven to harm others.” Kids want to understand fully certain events. Don’t use the conversation to pick a side, reinforce stereotypes, or make excuses for a wrongdoer. “You shouldn’t try to explain a way out of cruel behavior,” says Richard Weissbourd, Ed.D., the faculty director of human development and psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Let your kids ask questions, as their worries may not be what you expected. Explain that just because someone is behaving morally wrongly by being sexist, racist, or homophobic, it doesn’t always make them evil. Says Weissbourd: “You are trying to help your kids understand another human being.”