Teaching Children Empathy: A Guide to Developing Empathy in Children

If we work hard to raise empathetic children, they’ll develop a sense of inner strength that will protect them against outside influences beckoning them away from the proper choices.

Empathy and “benevolent selfishness” are two intertwined traits that make up the heart of self-directed children — those who rely on their own inner voices rather than outside influences.

For self-directed children to make the right choices concerning those around them rather than make choices tainted by their need for approval and acceptance, they must develop a strong sense of empathy for other people.

Selfishness, as conventionally defined, is “concern primarily with one’s own interests.” Sounds rotten, doesn’t it? True selfishness, however, is actually a wonderful trait, because honoring those self-interests requires being moral. For instance, if I were to donate $3000 to a local charity, because I sincerely want to help, my motives would be “good-selfish.” After all, my generosity would make me feel good inside. But if I made the donation so members of the community would respect me more, my motives would be “bad-selfish.” This is nothing more than greed. Will I feel good about it inside? Nope. Will people really respect me more? Doubt it. Have I avoided tarnishing my character? Absolutely not.

When self-directed children have a high sense of empathy, they examine the misfortunes of another until they develop a deeper understanding for that person’s situation. Once they’ve done this, they will respond through “benevolent selfishness.” Let’s say Sammy pushes his way to the front of the water fountain line after recess. If a self-directed child was one of those pushed aside, she might think, “I know where this is going. Everyone in line is going to get mad and pick on him. I know how I would feel if my friends picked on me.” (Empathy.)  “I can’t let Sammy go through that. I’d feel like I let him down. I’m going to take him aside and talk to him. If he loses friends, I’d feel bad about myself all day long.” (Benevolent selfishness.) You see how protecting her own feelings benefits everyone in that situation? Here are eight suggestions for helping children develop empathy and benevolent selfishness.

1. Teaching Children How it Works

Teach kids to follow the motto, “If it feels wrong inside, it’s good for no one.”  This helps them keep their motives sincere and pure. We can help them understand this distinction better by talking about the “selfish” acts we engage in, what motivates us to do them, how these acts do not harm others, and how the benefits to ourselves spread to those around us. We can also help them analyze the motives behind their own acts towards others. Do these motives allow them to keep their morals intact? Are their actions truly good for them in the long run? Do their actions help, rather than harm others? Could any ulterior motives be involved that make their acts less angelic than they appear?

2. Helping Children Understand Others by Using the “Empathy Triad”

We can help children develop a deeper understanding for others if we teach them how to assign empathy triad levels to those with whom they are in conflict. The triad consists of your own happiness, inner strength, and outlook at the given moment of conflict.

Suppose Sarah has a problem with her friend Megan, who’s jealous every time Sarah makes a new friend. If Sarah’s been taught how to use the empathy triad, here’s what she’d do: first, she’d compare Megan’s happiness level to her own. Surely, Megan can’t be happy at that particular moment if she wigs out at the prospect of sharing her friend! Then she assigns levels of inner strength. Megan, in this particular circumstance, displays an insecurity that proves she has less inner strength than Sarah. Finally, Sarah compares the outlooks for both Megan and herself. Megan is putting herself in the precarious position of losing a friendship. Wasn’t that just the thing she was trying to avoid in the first place?  And if the friendship collapses, she’s going to feel pretty down for a while. Sarah, on the other hand, is in a strong position, because she knows that no one has the right to deny her a new friendship. Understanding her position of strength will give Sarah the confidence that will allow her to feel empathy towards Megan … to develop an understanding that is free from resentment, frustration, and anger.

3. Helping Children Develop Empathy Through Service

Through bringing relief to someone who is suffering, children can come to understand the depths of that suffering. For instance, they can hand out blankets and hot tea to homeless families on a particularly cold winter’s day. Or perhaps they can help a recently widowed neighbor by raking her yard or taking her trashcans out. By performing acts of compassion, whether at school, in the family or in the community, our children can’t help but think about the misfortune of those they help. When they do, they’re sure to think about how it would feel to be in those other shoes.

4. Helping Children Use Internal Dialogue to Develop Empathy

As parents, we can try to show our children how to use internal dialogue to develop empathy. Some examples follow:

  • When our children are faced with people they don’t like or are at odds with, encourage them to try to find something good, however miniscule or trivial, in that person.
  • If they still can’t see anything worthwhile in that person, ask them to close their eyes and imagine him or her as a cute little newborn baby or as very ill or sad.
  • Still stumped? Ask them to see their enemies as children with their own burdens. Everyone has baggage of some sort, even those they despise.
  • Ask children to mentally place themselves in their adversaries’ shoes.
  • When we are angry with someone, we often mistake what motivates them, assuming that person did something to intentionally hurt us. But their behavior usually has less to do with us than we think. We can help our children find the good intentions of the person they’re at odds with. With this knowledge, of course, comes understanding. And with understanding comes true empathy.
  • Ask children to look back at prior experiences when the tables were turned.
  • Express aloud your own empathetic internal dialogue. For instance, “Daddy looks so tired after coming home from work. I bet he’d feel so much better if someone brought him his slippers and newspaper.” Afterwards, we can help them see what a powerful effect their empathy had: “Did you see how happy Daddy was that someone took the time to make him feel comfortable? He sure feels loved.”
    The purpose of all this inner talk is powerful. It guides our children to understand rather than blame and to use reason to override negative reactions like defensiveness, hurt feelings, and negative judgments.

5. Helping Children Develop Empathy Through Role Play

Whenever children have a hard time empathizing with someone, role-play can perform miracles.

6. Using “I Messages” to Teach Empathy

When we use “I messages,” we send a loud and clear signal: “Understand how I’m feeling right now, please!” For instance, a remark like, “I get frustrated when someone walks on my freshly mopped floor with muddy shoes,” jumpstarts the cascade of internal dialogue that makes our children consider what we are going through and what they should do to make things better.

7. Modeling Empathy

Voicing our own internal dialogue is an excellent way of modeling empathy for our children. Suppose Aunt Sue has the flu. You might talk out loud to yourself to show your children how you empathize with her situation, what you wish to do about it, and why. “That checker at the grocery store was so short with me today. She’s usually so nice! I wonder if anything’s wrong. I’ll bet money her feet are killing her. I think I’ll give her one of the magnolia blossoms from our garden.”

8. Teaching Children Empathy by Not Criticizing the Unfortunate

I don’t know if it’s cultural or instinctive, but humans commonly pick on the weak or hurt. It might be some strange looking guy in the crowd, an elderly driver going 25 miles per hour on the freeway, someone stuttering during an interview on the six o’clock news, or an obese friend. Criticizing people with imperfections sends our children a message that the shortcomings of others are intentional and exclusive to everyone else but us. They learn to criticize others for not correcting those flaws, even when the flaws can’t be changed, and to react negatively to imperfect people rather than respond with empathy and understanding.

Empathy is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children, because it helps them see the good in those around them. If we work hard to raise empathetic children, they’ll develop a sense of inner strength that will protect them against outside influences beckoning them away from the proper choices.

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