Source: New Jersey Family.com
How do you teach your kids to be empathetic? While you don’t need to set aside time for “empathy training,” it’s important to model it in your daily life, says Luba Falk Feigenberg, research director of Making Caring Common at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. “It’s not actually something we do on top of everything else. It’s something we do as part of everything else.”
Starting around age four or five, preschoolers can begin to put themselves in another’s shoes, Jimenez says. Instead of focusing only on emotions, parents of preschoolers can discuss the cognitive side of empathy. What might your friend be thinking and feeling? What can you do to help her feel better?
Parents can help kids understand that feelings are connected to actions by starting conversations with a simple prompt that’s applicable in both positive and negative situations like: “How do you think she felt when you did that?” And the follow-up, suggests Elias, can be: “How could you tell?” Ask these questions as things happen. For example, when your child won’t share her snack or she offers up her spot on the swings at the park.
As your school-age kid begins to discover his place in the world, encourage him to think of himself as an ethical person, Feigenberg says. When everyday ethical dilemmas arise, help him navigate the situation as his best self. If he aspires to be a good friend and leader, for example, how should he respond when his friend is being teased?
Empathy’s a skill that can be honed into the adolescent and young adult years, Jimenez says. As kids get older, parents should use natural experiences rather than forced situations as teaching tools. The time to discuss empathy is when it’s relevant to the present situation. For instance, talk about empathy when your daughter is thrilled to have made the soccer team, but has a best friend who didn’t make the cut. “Kids develop at their own pace,” Jimenez says, “and [empathy] is often a skill that takes time to master.”