As parents and carers, one of our most important responsibilities is nurturing empathy and compassion in children. Instilling these qualities lays the foundation for them to become kind, caring, and ethical adults who contribute positively to society. However, empathy and compassion are complex skills that take consistent effort and intentional teaching to instil.
Why is teaching empathy important?
Empathy allows children to understand and share the feelings of others. It enables them to see situations from different perspectives, enhance social connectedness, communicate effectively, and resolve conflicts peacefully. Children who demonstrate empathy enjoy stronger relationships, excel academically and professionally, become responsible citizens, and are less likely to bully others.
On the other hand, a lack of empathy can lead to antisocial behaviours, emotional issues, and relationship problems. So teaching empathy should be every parent’s priority right from early childhood.
How to Teach Empathy to Children
Many child development experts confirm that toddlers as young as 18 months old start demonstrating empathetic behaviour. So it’s never too early to begin modelling empathy at home. Here are some practical tips:
Create an environment where your child feels safe expressing vulnerable emotions without judgement. Validate their feelings with empathy, no matter how small or trivial an issue may seem to you. This emotional support teaches them that all feelings are acceptable.
Children are keen observers and constantly look to carers for behavioural cues. So set a personal example by demonstrating compassion, kindness, respect, and understanding in your daily words and actions. Your child will pick up these empathetic habits through observation and repetition.
Expand your toddler’s emotional intelligence and vocabulary around feelings. When reading books or watching shows together, ask questions like “How do you think she’s feeling right now?” and “Why did that make him sad?” Teach nuanced emotions beyond just happy, sad, and angry. Over time, they will better recognise subtle feelings in themselves and others.
Guide older children to consider other perspectives before reacting to a situation. Ask thoughtful questions like, “How would you have felt if your friend broke your toy?” This exercise in “standing in someone else’s shoes” builds understanding and compassion.
Encourage everyday acts of kindness and service in age-appropriate ways. Hold doors open for others, make cards for family members, help elderly neighbours with chores, donate old toys or volunteer together. These real-world kind gestures reinforce empathy.
Expose your child to books, shows, and events involving diverse races, cultures, physical/mental abilities, and family structures. Discuss how others’ struggles or experiences may differ from theirs. This expands their circle of concern and compassion beyond people just like themselves.
When you observe your child teasing, excluding or being unkind to others, address the lapse in empathy calmly. Refrain from scolding, but clearly explain how their words/actions hurt someone’s feelings and why that behaviour was unacceptable. Then brainstorm more constructive solutions together. These gentle, teachable moments reinforce empathy.
Your child looks to your reactions and conversations for cues on appropriate conduct with others. So be mindful of casually making unempathetic comments about people over characteristics they cannot control, such as appearance, disability or ethnicity. Children parrot this unintended insensitivity.
Hands-on community service activities teach compassion in action. Bring your child along to volunteer with you. Serve meals at shelters, make care packages for new immigrant families, clean up neighbourhood parks, or fund-raise for a cause they’re passionate about. They experience first-hand how small acts of kindness uplift others in need.
Books, movies and news stories can reinforce empathy and compassion in powerful ways. For younger kids, read uplifting books like “Wonder” that promote kindness. For tweens and teens, watch documentaries or films spotlighting marginalised groups overcoming adversity with perseverance and compassion. Discuss real news stories about citizens uniting to help fellow community members impacted by hardships. Let these positive examples of empathy spark meaningful conversations.
Modelling Empathy and Compassion Has Long-lasting Impact
The habits and mindsets children pick up early in life leave an imprint on adulthood. Kids who grow up in empathetic households are primed to become more understanding partners, responsible citizens, conscientious leaders and overall contributors to society.
So be intentional about nurturing empathy and compassion right from toddlerhood. With regular modelling, gentle redirection and open communication, you can instill emotional intelligence and kindness that last a lifetime. The future of society will be brighter for it!