by Boys & Girls Clubs of America in Resources
Every December when the twinkle lights go up and shoppers fill the malls, children across America start dreaming of all the holiday presents, delicious meals, and festive cheer they’ll soon enjoy. Unfortunately, not every child and family anticipates the winter holidays with hope, due to a range of circumstances and hardships. Amidst all the holiday hubbub, it’s important to take time out to show compassion for others and guide the kids in our lives to see beyond their own experiences and desires.
Help promote understanding and shape the next generation of compassionate people by teaching the kids in your life how to empathize with others. If you’re a parent, guardian, mentor, or even just a friend, you can take an active role in teaching empathy and showing more compassion towards others by setting an example for the kids in your life.
What is Empathy and Why Does it Matter
Empathy is our capacity not just to understand but to actually share in the feelings of others. It’s about being able to see things from another person’s point of view, even if you don’t feel the same way or haven’t had the same experiences. Empathy is an aspect of emotional intelligence and takes keen observation, active listening, and sensitivity to master. Empathy goes beyond sympathy. Rather than simply observing or commenting on someone’s experience from a distance, which tends to further divide our experiences from another’s, empathy asks the observer to step inside that experience, acknowledge how it feels, and connect deeply with the person going through it. In and of itself, empathy can be both an act of kindness and a gift that helps a person feel less alone.
It’s important to remember that empathy isn’t about having all the answers or solving another person’s problems—it’s about making space for people to feel safe, heard, and supported. Children are extremely capable of feeling and showing empathy, but simply telling them how to behave toward others isn’t always enough. Empathy is a learned skill. To teach it, adults need to actively show kids how to think outside of their own experience and attempt to understand and show compassion for things they don’t naturally experience—and the holiday season is the perfect time to start.
Dos and Don’ts: Teaching Empathy to Kids During the Holidays
Follow these simple dos and don’ts to promote more kindness, compassion, and empathy whenever you’re around kids this season:
DO model active listening
Even though empathy can be hard to master, it starts with something very basic—listening. Listening creates space for someone to feel heard and understood, but it takes more than an open ear to listen empathetically. Active, empathetic listening also requires asking open-ended questions that seek deeper understanding rather than assuming you already know the answer or appearing to judge someone in advance through your tone or word choice. Foster more empathy in yourself and the kids in your life by intentionally asking open-ended questions, listening, and acknowledging what other people are going through with an open ear, heart, and mind. This is the first and most basic step to showing compassion and building an empathetic connection with another person.
DO talk openly with your child
It’s natural for adults to want to shield children from the hardships happening in the world, but even young children can benefit from open and honest conversation. Who hasn’t witnessed a child blurt something inappropriate or ask a potentially embarrassing question about something they simply don’t understand? Lean into these moments. Rather than hushing your child or avoiding the topic, use the opportunity to start a conversation. Practice asking open-ended questions and sharing non-judgmental information that will help kids learn how greatly people’s experiences can differ.
DON’T assume everyone gets a “Christmas vacation”
Showing empathy goes right down to the words you use, especially around the holidays. Of course, saying “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” is more inclusive than saying “Merry Christmas,” but there are other phrases to be sensitive to that you may not have thought about. For example, “Christmas vacation”—not all children celebrate Christmas, and not all families get to take vacations. Examine the words and phrases you use around this time of year to look for those hidden assumptions. Once you develop an ear for empathetic communication, you can help your child learn how to be more careful with their words.
DO teach kids to express gratitude
Whenever your child receives a gift or card, encourage them to say thank you—even if they don’t like the present. Help kids understand that saying thank you isn’t about reflecting how you feel, but about acknowledging the other person’s thoughtfulness. Help kids think through the intention behind the gift so they see its true value. If it’s something they take for granted, like socks, ask them how it would feel to not have it at all. If it’s something they genuinely don’t like or won’t use, ask them if they can think of someone who could use and appreciate it. Every gift is an opportunity to encourage your child to put themselves in the position of the someone else and think about the impact their words and actions have on other people. Saying thank you is a sign of compassion in its own right and one of the gateways to fostering more empathy in kids.
DON’T encourage your child to brag about their presents
Of course, kids are going be excited about their new toys, videogames, and other goodies. But before they head back to school, remind your kid that boasting about their holiday loot could make another kid feel left out, jealous, or just plain sad. Encourage your kid to help others feel included by remaining humble about their own gifts and inviting them to play instead of just bragging. And remember – you set the standard. If you go around raving about the big-ticket item you got this holiday, the kids in your life will notice and follow suit.
DO set a good example
The best way to teach your child to be compassionate, supportive, and empathetic is to behave that way yourself! Holidays are the perfect time to get out into your community and show your child what compassion is all about. There are countless opportunities to volunteer around this time of year, from food banks to soup kitchens to clothing and toy drives. Find a way to connect with others in your community, and then invite your child to join you for the experience. Volunteering may not always foster empathy directly, but it can help you expand a child’s awareness of the world around them and other people’s experiences by asking questions, observing and listening.
Ways to Give Back This Holiday Season
Empathy is about understanding what someone is going through and not judging them for it. Spending more time in your community around the holiday season can help foster more understanding for the people in and around your lives in both yourself and your kids. If your family has the ability to share time or give financially, here are some holiday give back ideas that can provide new opportunities to practice empathy and understanding with your kids:
Ask a family to dinner. Make some room at your holiday table! If you know a family for whom the holidays may be difficult, invite them to join you for a homecooked dinner or another seasonal activity, like skating or caroling.
Make gifts for classmates. Encourage your child to make small gifts for their classmates like homemade ornaments or bags of holiday-themed candy. Receiving one of these surprise acts of kindness will lift everyone’s spirits!
Comfort the sick. Brighten a patient's day by visiting them in the hospital this holiday season. Many care facilities have programs where you can sing carols or read books to patients.
Volunteer at community organizations. Spread the holiday cheer by volunteering with your child at a charity or community organization, like a soup kitchen or women’s shelter.
Donate gifts to families in need. Each year, toy drives like Toys for Tots and Salvation Army’s Angel Tree Program provide millions of American families with new and gently used toys. Teach your child about the spirit of giving by shopping for toys together and ensure a child in need gets presents this holiday. If finances are tight, encourage your child to sort through their toys and choose some to donate to a local charity. Make it a family affair by going through your own closet, too—as a bonus, you get a head start on spring cleaning!
The holidays are the perfect time to focus on teaching empathy. By teaching kids compassion and fostering more understanding this holiday season, you’re providing them the skills and tools they need to better empathize with their peers and community year-round and well into adulthood. After all, empathy is a skill you learn, and much like riding a bike, it’s hard to forget once you’ve got it down. Use our tips to start teaching the kids in your life how to show more compassion and empathy now and in the future.