Teaching Empathy to Kids Starts With Us

Researchers at Harvard’s Making Caring Common project released a report this past fall that holds up an uncomfortable mirror for us parents about teaching empathy to kids. The team surveyed youth and asked them to rank by importance achieving at a high level, feeling good, or helping others. Nearly 80% of youth ranked achievement and happiness above helping others.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with achievement and happiness, but part of growing up is learning how to respond when these interests collide with the needs of others. Empathy is one of the core “pro-social skills” that:

  • Enable young people to build close relationships across differences
  • Navigate ethical challenges
  • Put the collective good ahead of their own self-interest when it matters

Person holding a heart over their chest to symbolize empathy

It is neither helpful nor accurate to read this report as an indictment of of today’s youth. The report itself found that roughly two-thirds of youth do list kindness as one of their top three values. We also know based on other polls that millennials are volunteering more than their parents’ generation and consider giving back a “very important obligation.” The fact is that the most important message within this report isn’t about our kids at all – it is about us.

While most parents and teachers argue that nurturing caring children is a top priority, this report found that nearly 80% of youth report that their parents are more concerned with achievement and happiness than helping others. The authors point out that children are quick to spot this “rhetoric/reality gap” For example, according to the report, youth were three times more likely to agree than disagree with this statement: “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”

So what can parents do to close the rhetoric/reality gap? The Making Caring Common project reminds us that empathy has two major ingredients: compassion and perspective taking. It is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and valuing the perspective you gain when you do so. Here are some ways to start teaching empathy to kids today:

Start with a good example. Model that you prioritize caring.

  • In addition to asking your child how they did on an exam you might ask, “Were you to kind to the other children in your class today?”
  • Pay attention to how you talk about others, especially people different from you. Teaching empathy to kids requires that you model empathy for others.
  • Volunteer, attend community meetings, reach out to thank and care for others and include your kids in these activities.

Be your child’s emotion coach.

  • We have an entire post about emotion coaching and ensuring that emotional regulation is front and center in how you think about setting limits and consequences. Learning to identify and manage your own emotions is the first step to understanding others.

Encourage compassionate perspective taking

  • Children and youth pay attention when you say, “How do you think Amir would feel if he got a text like that?” Model this awareness in your own language as well. “Your Grandma might be feeling sad today because Grandpa is gone. I’m going to call her now to see how she is doing and if there is anything I can do to help.”

Let them play

  • When children play imaginatively with each other they are actively practicing perspective taking not only as they negotiate with each other but also as they try on different pretend roles. Encourage your teens to keep playing board games, which encourages a player to consider what their opponent might be thinking.

Expand your children’s “circle of concern.”

  • Many children are more likely to have practice empathizing with close friends or family. Use newspapers, TV, and community events to broaden your child’s circle of caring and find compassion for other people’s experiences as well.
  • Encourage your child to listen carefully to others even if their perspective is different.
  • Talk about racism, sexism, homophobia and other toxins to empathy and community.

Take the long view

  • Don’t worry if your child or teen doesn’t always respond with compassion or isn’t willing to reflect with you on their feelings. Empathy is not something that you “pass or fail” and finding an empathetic response can be especially challenging when young people are hurt or angry themselves. Be patient, children and youth practice and develop empathy over years.

Stop, rest, and reflect.

  • We just wrote an post about the importance of “looking in” for children’s emotional and ethical development. Prioritize time for reflection, mindfulness, and rest.