Raising kind and compassionate children is inevitably one of the most – arguably the most – important tasks that parents and caregivers are responsible for. Of course, parents want their children to do well in school, get involved in activities and make friends, but the foundation to raising a kind human being all boils down to the basic of principals – teach your children to become empathetic and compassionate toward others.
This, however, does not happen overnight. In fact, it takes a lot of practice. But the process can start when children are young. Between the ages of 6-9 months, infants focus on parents’ reactions to social events and mimic them to learn how to operate in a social world. Between 18-24 months, toddlers begin to develop their own theories about the way the world works by attributing thoughts, feelings and intention to others and themselves.
So, how can you instill empathy and compassion in children? Melissa Nelson, Oak Knoll's Lower School Guidance Counselor, says there are several ways parents and caregivers can model and guide, starting when they are very young:
Discuss, Demonstrate, Learn About Feelings
To support the development of empathy in children, caregivers can discuss, demonstrate, and learn about feelings. While reading stories or watching television together, ask, “How do you think that character is feeling right now?” Discuss different feelings and expand the child’s emotional vocabulary beyond happy, sad, mad, and glad. Explain how people can experience “double-dip feelings” – many different emotions at the same time – and that there are no bad feelings. There simply are just better or worse ways to act on those feelings.
It is also important to help your child become comfortable with difficult feelings like anger, sadness, and fear. The more comfortable your child is with his or her own feelings, the more they will be able to understand and support others.
Be an Empathetic Person Yourself!
Parents and caregivers can also teach empathy by being an empathetic person and role model. Children are constantly observing their caregivers, so by helping others, asking others how they are feeling, and developing caring and kind relationships with others, your child will learn to do so as well. Using “I” messages when communicating your own feelings is also important to teach healthy assertive communication and behavior, which is based in respect for self and others. Additionally, holding yourself to high ethical standards will teach your children to do the same. Interacting with pets is another great and natural way to build empathy in children, since the child will love the pet and learn to care for and consider the animal’s needs.
Validate Your Child’s Emotions
It is so important that parents and caregivers empathize with children if they are not already doing so. Too often adults do not take children’s emotions or struggles seriously. It might seem trivial to adults, but to a child, their struggle is real and if they feel validated and understood they will be more likely to try to understand others as well.
Find Teachable Moments
Being an engaged parent and taking advantage of teachable moments is perhaps the most organic ways to teach empathy and compassion. While parents are sometimes moving a mile-a-minute, opportunities often present themselves throughout the day in which to slow down and talk to children about the choices at hand. For example, if you are at the bagel store and see a person being rude to the cashier, what do you do? Here, you should discreetly talk to your child about a better way to handle the situation. It may be easier for your child to understand what is happening in real time, specifically because they are not directly involved, therefore their emotions are not running high.
Another way to help your child develop empathy and compassion is to expand your circle of concern into your community and, slowly, the world around them.
While parents need to be careful to not overwhelm their children regarding the world and the many adult issues happening, they can gently raise their awareness to the struggles of others beyond their daily life. One way to do this is to get involved in volunteer work with your children. By doing so, you are modeling for your child how to help those in need.
Model & Teach Emotional Self-Regulation
Lastly, modeling and teaching emotional self-regulation is a big part of developing compassion and empathy. The more in tune (regulated) the child is with their own feelings, the easier it will be for he/she to understand and respond to other’s feelings. This can be addressed through recognizing feelings, learning coping strategies and working with peaceful conflict resolution.
Remember to keep the lines of communication open with your children as they grow up. By modeling empathy and compassion for everyone when your children are young, parents and caregivers can rest assured that they are doing their best to raise kind human beings who have compassion and reverence for everyone.
Melissa Nelson is the Lower School Guidance Counselor at Oak Knoll School of the Holy Child, a PK-12 private Catholic school in Summit, New Jersey. She received her bachelor’s degree in Dance and Psychology from Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, and her master’s degree in Clinical and Counseling Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York, New York. She earned her post-master’s school counseling certification at Caldwell University in Caldwell, New Jersey, where she also taught as an adjunct professor.