Teaching empathy to children is so important. Just like we teach our children to have self-control, we can teach them to have empathy for others. In our house, good grades are great, but they're not the most important thing. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that they're not even the second or third most important thing. For us, the keys to success are character and kindness. Part of that is having empathy for others.
By Webster's definition, empathy is the "action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another." In other words, empathy is being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes and imagine how something would make them feel or how it would make them react. It sounds easy, but teaching kids about empathy aren't as simple as it seems. Our words become their inner voices, so we need to work hard to be the example that our kids need... and we need to teach our children how to treat others.
Teaching Kids About Empathy
A study by Psychology Today shows that while humans are naturally egocentric, it is possible to train the brain to have compassion and empathy. In fact, When I was a teacher, I had a 5th-grade student who had damaged her cerebral cortex and had absolutely no empathy or compassion for others. We, as a team, worked so hard on empathy that school year that by the time May rolled around, she had developed friends and was able to step outside of herself and show empathy to others. It was a step in the right direction.
Use an Acronym to Teach Kids About Empathy
To focus on the idea of empathy, we used keywords and phrases that started with each letter of the word.
E - Everyone Needs a Friend
Even kids who struggle with empathy and compassion can grasp the idea of friendship and the desire to have someone with whom to share things. We talked about how empathy means letting others rely on you and, sometimes, relying on others.
M - Make an Effort
Make an effort to understand how someone else is feeling by restating their situation or imagining yourself in their place. My daughter calls the imagining "mind movies" where she reenacts the situation in her head, but puts herself in the shoes of the other person.
P - Put Yourself in The Other Person's Shoes
Not only is it important to understand the situation, but it's also vital that kids really imagine how they would feel should the situation occur to them. This helps them recognize their own feelings and then develop compassion for those who are upset.
A - Ask
Empathy is great, but the next step is action and that means asking if you can help. It's important to stress to kids that sometimes there may not be anything that they can do, but the act of asking can and will mean a lot to the person who is having a difficult time.
T - Think First
Thinking about how their words or actions will impact the person they're interacting with first is a huge skill that must be taught. Our human minds are so egocentric (think about the toddler grabbing everything and yelling, "MINE!"), that we have to work on developing the ability to step back and look at situations before reacting. Most adults still need practice too, so be sure to let kids know that they're not alone!
H - Help or Harm
Our words and actions can only do one of two things in life - they can lift people up or they can put people down. Those are really the only two choices. When teaching kids about empathy and compassion, framing actions and words in those two very basic scenarios can make it clearer for them to understand.
Y - You Both Feel Better
One of the things I love to stress with kids is that kindness, compassion, and empathy not only make the person who is the receiver of them feel better, they also make the giver feel better too. Being able to connect to someone in a time when they're struggling and help them navigate everything from a lost dog to a skinned knee to a day that doesn't go to plan, makes everyone feel just a little bit better.
Teaching kids about empathy is a long process and it needs to be modeled constantly. The good news is that, as you work on helping kids develop empathy, you'll find that the rewards and feelings of accomplishment when they have that lightbulb moment and finally get it will be the greatest gift of all.