As parents, caregivers and educators, we can help kids build compassion and empathy that will support their understanding and inclusion of all people — skills that will benefit them at school, in the workforce and in life.
3 Ways to Teach Empathy to Kids
Empathy is our capacity not just to understand but to actually share in the feelings of others – even if we don’t feel the same way or haven’t had the same experiences. Empathy is an aspect of emotional intelligence and to master it takes observation, active listening and sensitivity.
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 empathy, 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.
Follow these tips to promote kindness, compassion and empathy whenever you’re around kids:
Model active listening.
Learning empathy starts with something very basic — listening. Listening creates space for someone to feel heard and understood. But listening is more than just hearing someone speak then moving on to the next topic or activity.
To build empathy as a skill, we must practice active listening, which means truly taking in what someone is saying, responding with open-ended questions to deepen your understanding, and acknowledging the speaker’s experience. This skill shows that compassionate, active listening requires more than an open ear – it requires an open heart and mind.
Talk openly with your child about the wide range of people’s experiences.
It’s natural to want to shield children from hardships happening in the world, in your community or even in your family, but kids and teens benefit from open and honest conversations. These conversations help expand their worldviews and understanding of others. When your child asks tough questions (“Why did Jade say she isn’t getting presents this year?”) or doesn’t understand a topic (“Why does Levi’s family celebrate Hannukah, not Christmas?”), lean into these moments and 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. If your kid asks a question in a busy setting, don’t let it get lost in the shuffle – make a reminder to have a conversation about it later.
Give your child opportunities to experience and understand other people.
Empathy is about understanding what someone is going through and not judging them for it. Spending more time in your community can help foster more understanding for the people in and around your lives in both yourself and your kids.
By fostering more understanding and acts of kindness with the kids in your life, you’re providing them the skills and tools they need to better empathize with their peers and community year-round and well into adulthood.