One day when my daughter was about three-and-a-half, we were walking together toward our car talking about her day at preschool. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a man making his way toward us from across the street. His clothes were torn and unkempt. His hair was wild and his beard was littered with debris.
I tightened my hold on my daughter’s hand, quickened my step, and avoided eye contact as I hurried by, giving all of the signs I could that I would not engage. I breathed a sigh of relief as he passed without so much as a glance.
As we reached the car, my daughter asked:
“Mom, did you see that man?”
“His leg was hurt.”
“How do you know that?”
“He walked funny and had a cane. I hope he is okay.”
The tension I felt making a beeline for the car melted away in that moment. With her words, my daughter taught me an important lesson about empathy.
In my haste to protect my daughter from a perceived threat, I put my own sense of empathy on hold. Although I convinced myself that this man might be a threat to our safety (he wasn’t), the real threat was that he made me feel uncomfortable.
In exchange for saving myself that discomfort, I gave up an opportunity to be the parent that I want to be – the kind of parent who models empathy and kindness, even when it is uncomfortable to do so. Even if all I had to offer was a connection through eye contact or a smile, I could have made another choice – the choice my daughter made to consider the feelings of another human being.
For children and adults alike, empathy matters. Empathy relates to many positive outcomes, ranging from increased pro-social behaviors and cooperation1 to better learning and higher academic outcomes.2
In my past position as the Director of Early Childhood at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and in my new role as an Assistant Professor of Practice/Parenting Education Specialist at Oregon State University, a significant part of my life has been and still is devoted to teaching empathy. What I learned from my daughter is that I have more to learn. When it comes to showing empathy and kindness, we can all be better and do better.
So what can we parents/caregivers and educators of young children do to model and teach empathy? Here are a few ideas!
Use your relationship with your child to teach them how to treat others and how they should expect to be treated by others
Spend one-on-one time with your child cuddling, snuggling, hugging, sharing stories, or enjoying being together in the way that your family likes best. Children’s early relationships can shape the friends they choose as well as how they treat others.3,4
Use words with your child that you wouldn’t mind hearing them say back to you (or to their friends or teachers). Imagine your child shouting, “Cut it out! I’m sick of this!” at school. We can all say things when we’re upset that we don’t mean and hearing these words come out of our own children’s mouths can be surprising! It would probably go over better if they said, “I don’t like it when you do that.” This doesn’t mean only using words with your child that you would use with a friend. We would never tell our friends to “be sure and say thank you,” or “don’t forget to wipe your mouth with a napkin.” Guiding and teaching our children is an important part of our role as parents and caregivers, but it is also important for us to take time to intentionally choose the words and tone of voice that we feel best using and that we would feel good about our children using.
Talk about feelings – yours, your child’s, and others’
Regardless of our race, ethnicity, culture, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity – we all have feelings. The idea that we can connect through feelings no matter how similar or different our lives are is at the heart of empathy development. Ask questions that help your child make this connection. “He looks really upset. Have you ever felt that way before?” “She must feel very proud. What makes you feel proud?”
Let your child know that all of their feelings are okay. There are times when we all feel angry, disappointed, frustrated, happy, and excited. Sharing stories with your child about times that you have had these feelings as well as asking your child to share what makes them have these feelings is one way to teach them this message.
Sometimes it is easier to talk about other people’s feelings than our own. Using characters in stories or movies can be a great way to practice thinking about feelings.5 Ask your child questions like:
How do you think he or she is feeling?
How do you know they are feeling that way?
What happened that led to that feeling?
What would you do if you felt that way? Do you like having that feeling?
What could you do for a friend who is feeling that way?
Help your child learn how to connect with others
We often tell our children to find a friend to play with at the park, but we don’t always feel comfortable doing the same. Model for your child how to meet someone new. Introduce yourself to other parents or families at the park or grocery store. If this is uncomfortable for you, consider sharing that with your child, “I feel nervous meeting new people, but today I decided to be brave and make a new friend,” or “I really like meeting new people, but not everyone feels that way. How do you feel when you meet someone new?”
Support your child when they introduce themselves to others by offering them words to use like: “My name is… What’s your name? Do you want to play together?”
Help your child learn to recognize social cues. “It looks like she really wants to play with you. I noticed her watching you and smiling when you were in the sandbox.” or “I don’t think he wants that shovel. He keeps trying to push it away when you give it to him. Why don’t you set it down.” You can also point out your child’s social cues to others. “I don’t think he wants a hug right now. Maybe a high five instead?” Acknowledging your child’s cues and helping them recognize the cues of others helps children learn to treat others how they want to be treated (rather than how we want to treat them).
Most children are naturally curious about other people. Young children often show this curiosity through staring or pointing, something we actively discourage: “Don’t stare. It’s not polite to point!” Instead, encourage your child’s curiosity. Teach them how to talk about similarities and to ask about differences in a way that is respectful and shows genuine curiosity. “I have that same shirt!” “I never saw one of those before. Can you tell me about it?” Not everyone will be interested in talking with your child, especially if they are pointing out something that stands out (e.g., a woman wearing a hijab, a man in a wheelchair, a child with braces), but you may find yourself surprised at how many will appreciate the chance to have a conversation!
Help your child make amends – not just say “I’m sorry”
When your child hurts another child (or an adult), whether it is a physical hurt or hurt feelings, help your child think about the other person’s feelings (“How do you think that made them feel?). Encourage your child to say, “I’m sorry,” but also to ask, “Are you okay?” and “What can I do to help you feel better?” Ask your child what they could do differently next time.
Sometimes as parents, we do things that we don’t feel good about. We can use these moments to model how to make amends. If you feel comfortable doing so, use these same steps above to make amends with your child: “I was feeling really frustrated earlier when you wouldn’t take a bath. I’m sorry that I yelled at you – I shouldn’t have done that. Next time I’ll take a deep breath and try to stay calm, but I also need your help. What do you think we can do to make bath time be better?” Wouldn’t it be amazing to hear your teenage child say to you: “I’m sorry I yelled. I was feeling frustrated when you told me I couldn’t stay out late. I should have kept my calm so we could talk about it.”? To get there, we have to lay a foundation early on to show them how!
Model empathy throughout the day
Look for ways you and your child can help others and your community. Be sure to explain to your child what you are doing and why. For example, when picking up trash around your neighborhood, let your child know that, “this is something we can do to make our neighborhood a nicer place! I bet our neighbors will be so surprised when they see how nice our street looks!” Or when holding the door open for a stranger tell your child, “I noticed he looked tired so I wanted to help out!”
Show your child how to think about situations from another person’s point of view. “I felt really frustrated when that woman cut in front of us at the store. I bet she was in a hurry. Maybe she was late for an appointment.” This can be especially hard to do when feeling frustrated, but all the more important to model to help our child learn to do the same.
At this time in our world when societal tensions are high, laying a foundation for empathy feels especially pressing.
A few weeks ago, my daughter overheard a man asking people walking by to buy him a sandwich because he was hungry. She stopped and opened her lunch bag. I had seen this man before with his bloodshot eyes. On other days, I had chosen to walk around him.
Standing with my daughter that day, I made a different choice. The choice to be the model that I want to be. My daughter held out her applesauce and spoon and I said, “my daughter heard you say you were hungry and wanted to share her lunch with you.”
Much to my surprise, the man got down on his knees, looked my daughter in the eyes and gently said, “Thank you. You did the right thing today by sharing. Your mama taught you right. I’m not going to take your lunch because you’re a growing girl and you really need it. I’m already grown. I’m big and I need a big sandwich, but don’t you worry about me. Someone is going to share a sandwich with me soon. Just know that you did the right thing.”
He stood up, gave me a big grin, and gave my daughter a big thumbs up. I apologized for not having money with me to buy him a sandwich. He smiled back, “Don’t worry about that. Just keep teaching your daughter what you’re teaching her.”
I will never forget the lesson in empathy and kindness I learned that day both from my daughter and from our new friend, “Mr. C.” Sometimes as parents, we step out of our own comfort zones for our children. This was one of those times for me and I am grateful that I did.
Mr. C. now smiles and waves whenever we pass his corner. He never asks for money, but always gives my daughter a big thumbs up. I smile and wave back and stop and buy him a sandwich when I can.
I find myself wondering daily: what can I do today to teach my daughter about empathy? Although this is an important question, maybe I should also be asking myself: what will I learn from my daughter about empathy today?
How to Help Your Child Develop Empathy
How Parents Can Cultivate Empathy in Children
Taylor, Z. E., Eisenberg, N., Spinrad, T. L., Eggum, N. D., & Sulik, M. J. (2013). The relations of ego-resiliency and emotion socialization to the development of empathy and prosocial behavior across early childhood.Emotion, 13(5), 822.
Bonner, T. D., & Aspy, D. N. (1984). A study of the relationship between student empathy and GPA. The Journal of Humanistic Education and Development, 22(4), 149-154.
Murphy, T. P., & Laible, D. J. (2013). The influence of attachment security on preschool children’s empathic concern. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 0165025413487502.
Panfile, T. M., & Laible, D. J. (2012). Attachment security and child’s empathy: The mediating role of emotion regulation. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly,58(1), 1-21.
Brownell, C. A., Svetlova, M., Anderson, R., Nichols, S. R., & Drummond, J. (2013). Socialization of early prosocial behavior: Parents’ talk about emotions is associated with sharing and helping in toddlers. Infancy, 18(1), 91-119.