MM Expert: How to Teach Your Kids Empathy


While we hear a lot about bullies and bullying, most of what is said discusses the problem. Bullying is everywhere, and it is ruining the lives of many kids. OK, bullying is a problem. What are the solutions? On the largest scale, the solution is to change a culture that glorifies getting ahead through violence and aggression, selfishness, and outrageous exhibitionistic behavior. The best way to start these changes is in your own home with your kids. Teaching children empathy, compassion and civility is an important part of parenting overlooked in most parenting books (even the ones I’ve written!) and is rarely, if ever, taught in schools. I’ve written this primer to help parents focus on what they can do to promote the behaviors that stimulate positively social behavior (also called pro-social) behavior in kids.

Name the Feelings

Teach your children the names for feelings and emotions, what the connection between emotions and well being are, and how our behavior contributes positively or negatively to the well being of others. Wow! That sounds like quite a mouthful, but it requires little more than: (a) telling your child what your emotions are in different situations and (b) reflecting to your child what their emotions are in various situations. For example: “Wow, playing with that toy makes you so happy. Look at that happy smiling face!” or “I can see that you are feeling angry that you can’t have cookies for breakfast. Cookies are just not breakfast food, but you can have a cookie after lunch.”

Turn Your Frown Upside Down

One thing we are teaching children (we are talking about children as early as two or three-years-old) is that emotions make people smile and feel happy or frown and feel sad (or angry). Since children are concrete thinkers, it is helpful to connect the look on their faces to positive and negative emotions. You can say, “That makes me have a happy face,” when things feel good and “a sad face” when the emotions are negative. Some parenting experts caution parents about using the terms “good” versus “bad,” but I do not. You should never tell your kids that “they” are bad, but you can help your kids understand that some feelings are negative. Bad is easier to teach than “negative.”

Three to five-year-olds can easily understand “good,” “happy face,” “sad face” and “angry (or mad),” “afraid” and “excited.” As kids grow older they can understand “disappointed,” “upset,” “confused,” and “frustrated.” As children become more socialized they can understand some of the more complicated emotions like “jealousy” and “pride.”

There are no set ages for these, just general guidelines. There are children who are very “emotionally intelligent” (yes, emotional intelligence is a type of intelligence that varies from child to child). There are some children who are “gifted” in terms of their ability to understand emotions.
Once you have taught your children the names of the emotions and the positive or negative states they create, you can begin the task of teaching them the perspective of others, the beginnings of empathy.

How Do You Feel?

Talk to your children about the way you feel when they do something:

“Wow that was a great hug. That makes me feel so happy!”

Mix it up a bit from time to time and ask a question at the end of the interaction: “Wow that was a great hug, do you know how that makes Mommy feel?”

With younger children use story books, television programs or observations from life to ask you child how interactions make one another feel.

As your child becomes more aware of the relationship between behavior and emotion, use it as part of your disciplining and limit setting strategies:

“When you tell Cindy not to touch your toy, you are doing something that makes her sad. What do you think you could do to make her happy? I think you can share with her. That would make me happy.”

Instill Sensitivity

The best way to create a culture with less bullying is to instill a sensitivity for how our behavior influences others. Becoming aware of how others feel is is the cornerstone of empathy, which is the most important building block of becoming a sensitive and civil human being. Research shows that children can develop empathy by age four.

Round off your pro-social parenting by instilling a sense of volunteerism in your kids and a sensitivity to giving just a little to someone who has a lot less. The goal is to teach sensitivity to others, which also contributes to helping kids withstand the cruelty of bullying — bullies are not the powerful people they appear to be but lonely, suffering people who are sad and upset.

Bullies suffer from an insensitivity to others — most notably a lack of empathy. As with everything I write about bullying, I always remind parents to emphasize that there are more of “us” than there are of “them.”



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