How Can We as Parents Cultivate Empathy & Sympathy in Our Children?

Do you have a child who has had a tough time empathizing with others? Don’t feel alone – most parents have experienced this with their kids at one point or another.

Empathy has been described as a person’s ability to recognize and share another person’s emotions; it connects us with our common humanity.  It has been called a virtue of the intellect. Empathy comes from the heart; it is foundational to what it means to be human and to act in an ethically loving manner. Empathy is critical to healthy emotional functioning and human interaction. Yet, just as with adults, it can be difficult for a child to walk in another person’s shoes and to understand their perspective.  We need to teach our children about empathy and help them develop this critical “intellectual virtue.”

Adam Stanley once said, Your greatest contribution to the world may not be something you do, but someone you raise.”

During this episode, Lee Ann elaborates on the following ways we can teach empathy to our children:
  • Empathize with your child and model what it looks like. When we empathize with or for our children, they develop trust, knowing we care for them and for what they are going through. We also need to let them see and hear how we care for others. When they watch you express empathy through words and actions, they learn firsthand what it means to empathize.
  • Ask your child questions. For example: What was the hardest part of your day? What was the best part of your day? Process (empathize) with your child the bad and good parts of their day.
  • Demonstrate empathy for people who are different from you or your family. Volunteer with your child in community service or at your church – model ways of contributing to others.
  • Look for opportunities for your children to practice empathy. Children are born with the capacity to empathize – as children grow, their ability to empathize needs to be explored and nurtured. Regularly considering other people’s perspectives and circumstances equips a person to be empathic so that empathy becomes a natural reflex.
  • Help your children connect and manage their feelings by helping them first identify their feelings, then learn how to have self-control in their actions and reactions, and eventually, to be able to resolve conflicts.
Lee Ann also highlights some of the many ways to help your children develop sympathy and empathy from the article “How Parents Can Cultivate Empathy in Children” by Richard Weissbourd and Stephanie Jones:
  1. Have family meetings. Hold family meetings when there are family challenges or conflicts; in those meetings, give children a voice and encourage them to take the perspective of other family members. Listen carefully to your children’s views and ask your children to listen carefully to the views of others.
  2. Encouraging empathy for peers. Ask children about their classmates and other peers. Ask children when they’re in conflicts with peers to consider their peers’ perspectives.
  3. Reflecting on empathy and caring. Notice with your child when you’re together, and someone exhibits strong empathy—or shows a lack of empathy—either in your daily life, in a book, or on television. Discuss why acts of empathy are important and why lacking empathy can be harmful.
  4. Discussing ethical dilemmas. Discuss with your child ethical dilemmas that help them appreciate various perspectives, e.g., “Should I invite a new neighbor to my birthday party when my best friend doesn’t like her?” “Should I tell my friend if I know her boyfriend, who is also my friend, cheated on her?”
  5. Zooming in and out. Help children learn to zoom in, tuning in carefully to others and zoom out, taking in multiple perspectives and people. Use news media or TV stories to start conversations with children about other people’s hardships and challenges or simply the different experiences of children in another country or community.

Romans 12:15 encourages us to: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

Children’s books mentioned: Empathy Makes Me Kind by Divya Mohan, Be Kind by Pat Zielow Miller, and Stand in My Shoes by Bob Samson.

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