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.

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.