Compassion and kindness can be learned. Here are some ways to help your child be more empathetic.
Empathy is the ability to imagine and understand how others feel and respond with much care and thought. Indeed, this is not something you develop overnight. It’s a complex skill and something that our children will continue to learn as they grow.
When a child can empathise with another person, it means that they :
Developing empathy takes time. But the good news is that just like many other skills, being kind and showing compassion is something that our child can learn over time and through practice. Here are some guide or tips to help your child develop that skill:
Walk The Talk: Modelling the Behaviour
Our children first pick up empathy from us - by observing how we reciprocate that behaviour with them or through interaction with the people around us. We are their earliest reference point on these developmental milestones.
Their empathy experience with us will help them learn and imagine the different emotions and appropriate responses in different situations. When we empathise with our children, we are establishing that secure, loving bond with them. Feeling loved, accepted and understood helps your child get and love others and grow.
Empathising with our child can be in many different forms, including tuning in to their needs, understanding and respecting them as an individual, taking a genuine interest in their lives and so on. For toddlers, this may look like acknowledging how they may be feeling and validating their emotions before proceeding to tackle the problem at hand.
For younger babies, social referencing helps them to make sense of the people and world around them. This is when they turn to their parents or other loved ones to gauge their reaction or response to another person or situation. As an example, their parents’ behaviour toward a new guest visiting will help them understand if this person is good and safe.
Make Caring an Important Family Value
If we want to raise children that value other’s perspectives or be respectful and show compassion to others, we need to communicate this clearly to them. This can be done verbally through conversations and family discussion or acts of service.
Caring towards others means as parents and educators, we need to set an example to show the same care towards our children. When they can experience that in their daily lives and thus, becoming a habit, this will be something that they can express and practise with their peers.
For younger ones who are still developing this skill, celebrate or highlight to them when they exhibit kindness towards others and themselves, like, letting someone go first in a line. Let them know that as a family, we’re centred around good values that guide our decision and caring matters to you greatly.
Similarly, when rudeness occurs, whether by others or by our children, it’s essential to address the situation. This teaches your child that we don’t respond to someone by being mean, even when they are nasty.
Step into Another Person’s Shoes: Cultivating Perspective Taking
For most of us, it’s easy to show empathy towards our circle, the people we know and love. But as parents and educators, we want to expand their circle of concern to other people they may not know, to strangers on the street, to other communities who are different from them.
We must model that behaviour to guide them to understand and demonstrate care for others facing different challenges or lead different lives than theirs. You can help your child relate by reflecting on their own experiences. For example, questions like “Remember that time when you...?”
Indeed, all experiences are different. But by giving them a glimpse or helping them imagine by stepping into another person’s shoes allows them to zoom in and out of the other perspective and situation.
Another way we can cultivate perspective-taking is by practising compassionate limit-setting. Instead of jumping in straight to punish their behaviours or condemning certain behaviours, help them imagine what others may feel due to their action by identifying thoughts, feelings, motivations, and intentions.
A simple way to start is by asking, “How would you feel if your friend did that to you?”
Provide Opportunity to Practise Empathy
There are many ways or different opportunities our child can practise empathy. We can include them when we’re actively modelling that behaviour for them to pick up. Empathy does not need to occur only as a response to conflict-resolution situations among their siblings or peers.
We can provide these platforms to seek out those said opportunities by nurturing and reinforcing prosocial behaviours. Some of these may look like holding the door or lift for strangers, volunteering in our community, helping a neighbour in need, donating our time or money and checking up on our friends who may not be feeling well physically or mentally.
When they see us modelling these behaviours, it may spark other creative ways to do that for their peers and community. It can even begin in their family’s social circle - them initiating how to help out in the house, imagine how their younger siblings might feel on the first day of school, etc.
Highlight to them the different ways we can show empathy beyond solving a fight or disagreement. This can also be demonstrated for younger toddlers through pretend play and make-up stories with their plush toys. You can even explain to them that their physical action and verbal action, be it for good or ill-intention, can bring good or harm to others.
Most importantly, when they make a mistake or hurt others and their feelings, walk them through how to reflect and make things better. Help them, even as young as they are, be accountable for their actions and have the courage to apologise and make amends.
Raising Empathetic Kids
While they are learned, kindness and compassion can take time for our children to grasp and adequately develop fully. It’s not an easy journey, especially when there are existing figures or messages from our society that push for a plan that works against putting others first and the importance of emotional intelligence.
But we are raising empathetic kids, and instilling these values in our children matters for us to raise future leaders who will create a loving and inclusive community. Bringing up a wonderful human being starts with us: being a loving parent and a great role model first.
In the meantime, continue to be patient with our young ones, and remember that developing a complex skill like empathy takes time and heart that will continue to grow over their lifetime.
Gifted Kids Asia is passionate about nurturing gifted kids through invested parenting. If you’re keen to learn more about how to optimise your child’s intelligence and potential, you can check out the carefully crafted programs and courses we have in store.