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The Importance of Teaching Empathy

There is a lot of pressure in today’s world! Trying to be the best of the best, showcasing our lives on social media, and being involved in (what seems like) a million activities, we are constantly rushing from one thing to the next without taking the opportunity to spend quality time with each other. Instead of taking the time to talk with each other, we now communicate through screens on a regular basis. The book Unselfie, by Dr. Michele Borba, examines this decrease in direct interaction with each other, as it discusses the importance of overtly teaching our children what empathy is and how to use it. Empathy, or feeling with someone (as opposed to for them), does not come naturally to people; rather it has to be taught and practiced. Dr. Borba in Unselfie discusses several ways to do just that.

While there are many different ways of providing feedback to children, one way that can build character and increase empathy is by acknowledging character traits that instill values. For instance, instead of saying, “You are so nice,” try saying “you are a kind person and kind people help our friends when they need it.” This encourages children to look for other opportunities to be kind in the future. On the other hand, there are certainly times that children will act in a way that is less than kind. That is OK! The important thing is it is used as a learning opportunity. The acronym CARE provides a framework to do just that.

  • Call attention to uncaring behavior. Not only is it important to point out the negative behavior to your child, but also it is important to have a discussion about why it did not demonstrate kindness.

  • Assess how uncaring behavior affects others. Pointing out physical reactions (crying, running away, clenching jaw) as well as verbal reactions are a great way to connect responses with the words that were said.

  • Repair the hurt by engaging your child in a conversation about what they can say/do and how they can communicate to the other person that they know the consequences of their actions. It is easy to say you are sorry, it is more difficult to take it one more step, but much more meaningful!

  • Express disappointment and stress caring expectations. While this may be difficult as a parent, it is one of the most effective lessons that children can learn. Remember when your parents said, “I’m not mad, I’m disappointed?” Those moments, although not fun to remember, certainly leave an impression!

Learning to take someone else’s perspective is a hard skill but hopefully with practice it will become second nature in no time!

There are also some fun things that you can do as a family to help teach and practice empathy.

  • Practice “reading” other peoples faces. You can do this while people watching at the mall (just make sure to speak quietly!), by looking at picture books, and can even do this with family photos to have a fun trip down memory lane! For a fun art project, children can draw pictures or emojis of different feelings and discuss why a person might be feeling that way.

  • Create a family mantra. Hold a family meeting where you discuss who you are as a family and what is important to you. Identifying core values can lead to the creation of a family motto that can be repeated regularly as a way of encouraging kindness towards others. For example, “We are the Eisenman’s and we have our eyes on others!”

  • Take pictures of your children of them being kind to others and put them up around house. They can also draw pictures that can be hung up of ways that they can be kind to others.

  • During dinner, take turns sharing about a time when someone did something kind to you during the day, and a time when you did something kind to someone else. You can even practice talking about interactions with other people and what their perspective might have been.

  • Bring back family game night and play games as a family! Put all electronics away, order pizza, pop some popcorn, and have a great time connecting with each other!

Written by Dana Eisenman, BS, MA, LAPC

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