Raising an Empathetic Child

Many years ago, when my children were young, our house burned down on Christmas Eve. Fortunately, we got out safely...

Raising an Empathetic ChildMany years ago, when my children were young, our house burned down on Christmas Eve. Fortunately, we got out safely, but were left with nothing but the clothes on our backs and our beloved dog.

The entire community rallied to help us through our terrible loss. Children who didn’t even know our family brought my kids some of their own Christmas gifts! I’ve been fortunate to have traveled the world to serve others in crisis but our family’s experience really hit home in terms of the kindness of strangers. To experience, firsthand, the empathy and kindness of all the people who so benevolently reached out was a very powerful lesson for myself and my children. It was a teachable moment of epic proportions and one that we will never forget!

Empathy is an essential emotion. It's an emotional intelligence (EQ) skills that reveals itself in our ability to understand the feelings of others. But it actually goes deeper still: Empathy is not only the ability to walk in another’s shoes but to provide comfort during their time of need.

Teachable Moments

Though intangible, teachable moments are very real tools you can use to raise an empathetic child. Sometimes those moments just happen to us—like the response to the fire my family experienced—and sometimes we have to create them.

Children learn empathy by watching their parents. We can model desired behavior at home by being responsive to our children’s needs. It’s never too early to start! Here are a few suggestions for modeling empathetic behavior and creating teachable moments in everyday life.

Be thoughtful.

  • Have your child help you shovel a neighbor’s sidewalk.
  • Show your child how to hold a door for an overwhelmed parent with their groceries.
  • Send cards or e-cards (many are free) to offer friends and family good wishes on their birthdays, if they’re ill, or just to say you are thinking about them. Have your child add in a drawing as a personal touch.
  • Talk about feelings.
  • When your child is watching TV, ask, “How do you think that character
    feels right now?”
  • When you read with your child, stop periodically to talk about what’s
    happening in the story and how it’s making each of you feel.
  • Teach your child how to identify non-verbal cues in others, which reflect
    what they may be feeling inside.
  • Be compassionate.
  • Bring your child to a soup kitchen to volunteer on a weekend.
  • Help your child organize a drive for anything from backpacks to books for
    other kids in need.
  • During a family meeting, discuss ideas for volunteering in your community. Schools, local United Way chapters, and local faith communities are great resources for finding out about volunteering opportunities.
  • Empathy is an important EQ skill for obvious reasons: we need to show our children, early on, how to contribute to society in various, age-appropriate ways. On the flip side, being empathetic can also make us feel better about ourselves. Volunteering has proven to be a therapeutic activity for people dealing with depression. Empathetic children tend to score higher on standardized tests and have enhanced academic achievement overall. In fact, kids who show empathy often also show a higher level of moral development than less empathetic kids.

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could teach a whole generation of children how to be empathetic? Just imagine what our world would be like if everyone cared for one another! I can’t think of a more meaningful EQ skill to teach our children!