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Teaching Empathy in Children

Aug 26, 2008

Children are developmentally focused on themselves. They believe that the world is only as big as themselves, and they have difficulty with the concept of empathy. Children tend to feel shamed, blamed, or victimized when things happen, as they do not yet have the ability to “put themselves in another’s shoes”.

Empathy, or being ‘other-oriented’ comes with maturity, development and learning. It is not a natural process for children, and they need opportunities to practice, observe and understand the concept in order to fully grasp the idea.

Once a child reaches the age of about 12, they begin to develop abstract reasoning skills. This allows them to see the world from a broader perspective (The world is bigger than me), create a personal worldview (I believe all people are good, etc.), and understand human relationships (I affect others and they affect me). Until this point in their development, children struggle to show compassion, empathy or altruism, as we similarly struggle as adults.

So, how do we help children learn these important skills? First, the most powerful learning tool for children is modeling those behaviors that they see in parents. The more we train ourselves to be aware of others’ needs and try to demonstrate empathy, the more likely our children will exhibit similar behaviors.

Second, children, like adults, need to practice skills to master them. When we provide our children with experiences that require empathy, we give them crucial moments to consider concepts larger than themselves. The abstract concepts of poverty, homelessness, solitude, old age, and socio-economic status are made clearer when children confront those ideas head-on. The more questions they ask, the more they expand their empathic reach.

Third, any volunteer opportunities that come up through schools, churches, community organizations, etc. are easily found and usually are kid friendly. Check with the leader to make sure that children are welcome, but bring them with you. Children frequently go to nursing homes to sing and hand out gifts, work at soup kitchens preparing or distributing food, organize food pantries, label donations at thrift stores, help with simple projects at construction sites (Habitat for Humanity has a 12 year old minimum age requirement, I believe), etc.

There are many opportunities for your children to learn empathy. This trait carries into every interaction that they have, with family, friends, teachers, coaches. The reach is endless, and begins with you exposing them to those for whom they can have empathy.