Fostering Empathy in Your Children
Imagine you’re walking down the sidewalk and your daughter pauses to examine a bird that hit the window. Naturally curious, your child crouches down to get a better look and then pops up and says, “Daddy! We have to rescue it! Let’s take it home.”
What’s happening here? That’s empathy at work.
Empathy is a skill
Empathy is a social and intellectual skill that goes beyond feeling sorry for someone (which is sympathy). Empathy means being able to feel what another person is feeling. Your child likely knows what it is like to get hurt, so they can relate to the injured bird and feel inclined to help. Empathy is complex, but starts when young. And eventually this budding young empathy leads to even more complex, pro social behaviors as a child grows.
When children play and take on roles of others- say a server in a restaurant or even an ant in an anthill-they immerse themselves into that role and truly “feel” what it is like to be someone (or something) other than themselves. This is how children begin to grow their ability to empathize. The more they practice, the more natural this response comes toward other people in various situations.
Being empathetic in nature is a key aspect in the ability to collaborate effectively with others. It includes other caring notions such as showing consideration for others, noticing others’ emotions and having compassion for another. Empathy is a big part of what makes a person, a kind person.
The Powers of Play
At Minnesota Children’s Museum, we have identified seven skills we believe children need to thrive, now and throughout their lives. One of these essential skills is collaboration: the ability to engage with others positively and productively. Collaboration inspires community within a group – small, like a kindergarten classroom or large, like an entire organization. Empathy is a key component of collaboration. Empathy helps us appreciate the contribution of others and achieve common goals. By building children’s empathy, we set them up for a life-time of success.
Encouraging Empathy with Your Children
To help your child practice empathy, start with modeling it yourself. Show it for your child by recognizing and addressing their feelings, and show it for others when your child is around. Encourage dramatic play where your child takes on roles. Then when they are in a role, start a conversation and ask specific questions that get at identifying feelings. Lastly, ask their opinion on things that can be done to help someone who may be hurt, ill, afraid, or feeling down.