This was originally published at Little Children Schoolhouse.

Young children seem to have an innate capacity for compassion and a willingness to help others. In other words, they can be empathetic towards people and loved ones around them. While some children may be naturally a bit more empathetic based on their demeanor or personality, empathy is a skill that can be learned. However, it is also a skill that should be continuously nurtured by parents if they hope to raise children that are kind and thoughtful in their daily actions.

Defining Attributes

Empathy is the ability to see and value what another person is feeling or experiencing. Often the first signs of empathy in childhood appear during the toddler phase. For example, two-year-olds can generally understand emotions and react to the emotions of others. They may bring a friend a tissue when they are crying, or put a blanket on a stuffed animal if they think they are cold. These are all signs of a child’s empathy. By the age of four, children tend to connect their own feelings with those of others, and by age six or seven they can emotionally begin putting themselves in the shoes of others. It may take until they reach adolescence when kids can relate to and empathize with larger societal problems, such as homelessness or poverty.

Empathy is a beneficial life skill. Those who possess it tend to have stronger relationships and connections, and also may perform better academically and professionally. Studies have also suggested that children that show empathy may be less likely to abuse substances and behave violently towards others.

Nurture vs. Nature

It is no wonder that parents are interested in learning about how they can raise an empathetic child given these meaningful benefits. On a more simple level, they also just want their children to be nice and play well with others at home, in school, and on the playground. No parent enjoys hearing that their child hurt someone else, or that they did not help a friend who was in need.

It may be true that some children seem to be born a bit more sensitive and emotionally aware than others. The good news is that empathy is a skill that anyone can acquire. Listed below are a number of recommendations that parents may want to explore to help their children better embrace and practice empathy on a regular basis.

  1. Read Fiction: There are so many wonderful benefits to reading to your child, but reading fiction specifically has shown to help children better understand feelings and the impact actions can have on others. As you read aloud to your child, you may want to ask follow-up questions about how a certain character feels, or how they perceive them to feel based on words and pictures.
  2. Discuss Feelings: It can be helpful for children to hear and see a wide range of feelings identified and openly discussed, beyond just the basic “happy” and “sad” emotions. This can help them verbalize their own feelings and, if they can better communicate what they are feeling, chances are they will be able to better identify the feelings of others.
  3. Encourage Sharing: This may seem obvious, but sharing is a great way to teach empathy in children at a young age. Children begin to understand the importance of taking turns and thinking of others. Sharing can bring out many feelings in children – both positive and negative – and can open up a dialogue for parents and caregivers to discuss feelings and how actions can impact others.
  4. Live Responsively: Empathy is really about meeting the emotional needs of others in a responsive and timely way. Research has shown that children who are more empathetic have been raised in environments where their own needs have been responded to by others. It is important for children to feel emotionally supported at home in order for them to give such support to others around them.
  5. Mind Manners: Encouraging children to say “please” and “thank you” is a simple way to get them thinking about other people and their feelings. It also teaches them about gratitude and showing respect, which are important components of empathy.
  6. Call Out Kindness: When a child does something kind for another person, be sure to praise them for this in a positive way. Many children respond to such praise by doing many more empathetic acts and deeds.
  7. Praise Heroes: There are so many men and women around all of us every day whose job it is to help others such as doctors, nurses, firefighters and police officers. It may be impactful on children to openly discuss the important work these individuals do to serve others and the community. For example, a fire engine siren can help to start a discussion around the importance of being selfless and helping others.

Remembering that actions tend to speak louder than words, perhaps the most important thing a parent can do to help instill empathy in their child is to serve as a strong empathetic role model. Parents should strive to treat everyone they encounter with respect and courtesy, and not speak poorly of others.  They should freely express their emotions when they are happy, as well as when they are sad or frustrated. It can be understandably challenging to display such behavior at all times, but it is a worthy goal that can go a long way in the eyes of a child. Most will agree that the more empathetic our children are, the better off not only our children, but our larger community and world will be.

About the Author:

Gladys Ruiz is the Director of Little Children Schoolhouse in Brookline, MA.  After more than 10 years working in Early Childhood Education, Gladys opened the Little Children Schoolhouse to provide a nurturing, loving environment—an extension of her student’s home and family life—in Brookline. Pre-K, Preschool and Daycare programs for toddlers and infants include extra activities, such as weekly music, yoga, cooking, science activities, and field trips.  Both full day and part-time enrollment are available.