How To Foster Empathy In Your Kids

Parents open up about how they're raising caring and empathetic children.

Parents want to raise kids who care about other people’s feelings and who have an inner moral compass. Of course, that’s much easier said than done.

From a young age, children should learn to value what others are feeling.

“Our kids need to appreciate other people’s feelings ― they’ll be better friends, romantic partners and parents later,” said Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard educator and co-director of the university’s Making Caring Common Project.

So how can parents instill caring, fairness and basic morality in their kids?

“It’s all about modeling,” Weissbourd said. “Almost all kids are morally literate. They know adults have values, but moral identity is the bigger thing. When parents expect something, when parents have high moral standards, such as helping neighbors, modeling fairness, these understandings are backed up.”

And how should parents intervene when their kids do something that seems to violate the parents’ values? Weissbourd adds: “Say, ‘The expectation in our family is X.’ And for young kids, the Golden Rule is helpful.”

“Our kids need to appreciate other people’s feelings ― they’ll be better friends, romantic partners and parents later," said Richard Weissbourd.
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“Our kids need to appreciate other people’s feelings ― they’ll be better friends, romantic partners and parents later," said Richard Weissbourd.

To get more advice from the village, as it were, we asked the HuffPost Parents Facebook audience how they instill empathy in their children. Here’s what they had to say:

“When either of my boys, ages 5 and 3, impact another kid’s emotions positively or negatively or if they witness another child that is sad or upset, I ask the question: ‘How do you think they feel?’ I find that getting my kids to think about and be a part of the other person’s feelings, rather than just a witness to it, helps to build empathy. In the right situation (for example, at a playground and a child hurt their knee), I may also ask my kids: ‘How can we help them?’” ― Chris Passmore

"It’s important to always be kind or at least try," wrote Alyssa Anderson.
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"It’s important to always be kind or at least try," wrote Alyssa Anderson.

“Having empathy for others is definitely a learned behavior. I started introducing it when my two children were both very young. They are one year apart and I knew I wanted to foster a lifelong friendship beyond brother and sister. Sharing toys: I would show them how happy it made the other one when they gave the toy to them. Understanding and verbally acknowledging feelings and talking about them. On the other hand, we learned boundaries and how to stop tickling each other when someone says stop.” ― Lindsay Brimmerman

“I treat my kids like human beings, the way I want to be treated. I listen to what they say, and when we disagree I’ll listen to their side (I’m not talking a disagreement where they refuse to drink a glass of milk, I mean the big stuff). I promise to always listen. This doesn’t mean they get their way, but I will let them have their say.” ― Jenn LaValley

“We often talk to our children about how we feel. We are open and honest about context and situations. For example, if we have a fight, once everyone is calm, we talk about how it made us feel and what we could do differently next time. We don’t force conversation either ― we allow our kids space if they’re not ready to talk and say it’s ok, we’ll talk when you’re ready. I think consent is really important. It shows them not to push others when they want to be left alone. Whether we are feeling positive or negative emotions, they are all valid. We allow our kids to feel angry or sad because feelings aren’t always positive and that’s ok. Building the emotional tool set goes a long way to developing empathy. How can we ask our kids to have empathy towards others if we don’t cultivate their own understanding of their feelings? And lastly, perspective on how others are feeling. If my daughter ignores me, I’ll explain to her how that makes me feel. Then I’ll say how would it make her feel if she was trying to get my attention or tell me something really important and I just completely ignored her. That often makes her go ‘Oh! That’d really upset me!’ We talk about how our actions affect others.” ― Chenoa Gao

“I try to empathize with them when they are having a rough moment, rather than meeting their rough moments with anger and disappointment. Often when they are having hard times, there is a reason. I try to help them identify what’s really bothering them and address that. I’ll never forget the day my middle daughter came home from school and was telling me they had seen a person get pulled over. The kids on the playground were speculating about why and making comments that she perceived as not so nice. She told them to stop, that he was probably sad or scared that he was pulled over. She was in first grade. I try to teach them we don’t always know the situation behind things and it’s important to always be kind or at least try.” ― Alyssa Anderson

"You don't teach empathy, you show empathy," said Dawn Gudel.
Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy via Getty Images
"You don't teach empathy, you show empathy," said Dawn Gudel.

“No tricks. Children learn by what they see and hear. You are showing empathy for others, your children will see and understand what that is. You don’t teach empathy, you show empathy.” ― Dawn Gudel

“When you are asking your kid about their day, ask what good things happened to other people today. Did anything bad happen to someone else? How did that make them feel? Start in preschool. It helps your kid learn to celebrate the success of other people and to have empathy for someone having a hard time. Then as they get older you can discuss strategies like ‘How can you help next time?’” ― Beckie Grim

“We use empathy as a learning tool often. When my son does something he shouldn’t, I often find the only way to get through to him is to explain the same situation but it happening to him. Once I get him to describe his feelings and tie it back to what he did wrong, there is usually an ‘aha’ moment.” ― Kristina Mahler

“We’ve taught our little boy to be empathetic of all beings, including little bugs and birds. We encourage him to say hello and thank you to all the animals we come across, and this has transferred to the people he comes across.” ― Alice George

“When my children were little, we watched muted TV shows. I would ask them to tell me how they thought the characters are feeling and what could make them feel that way.” ― Alicia Francis Lee

“Verbalizing what THEY might be feeling, expressing my own feelings, pointing out how they can notice the feelings of others (like: ‘Look at how she is sitting alone in the corner. Do you think she wants to be alone or does she want a friend? What can you do?’).” ― Reninca Vangheel

“I try to keep a perspective that I’ve had 24 years to learn to navigate emotions. She’s had five. Listening to her is my biggest thing. I allow her to ‘cry it out’ if she needs to. I’m open with her about my feelings to an extent and how events make me feel, how her actions make me feel. I shower her with praise when she does good deeds and try not to overreact when she messes up.” ― Emily Gerow

“The thing that has seemed to make the biggest impact is by being extremely open about all feelings with everyone in the house. When someone is angry, we say it. When we are sad, we talk about it. When trying to get my almost 4-year-old to be empathetic I just talk about the raw feeling that a person might be having. Example: while watching ‘The Grinch’ we talk about how grumpy the Grinch is, but we also talk about how lonely he must be because he only has his doggy and no friends. This has transferred to other places in life, like at the park my son will talk about someone playing alone feeling lonely.” ― Heather Sanchez

Quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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