Teaching Children Empathy In Tough Times

These are challenging times for all of us. The 24-hour news cycle in which we live forces us to be confronted with stories and images of tragedy, harsh reality and the hard truths of our society. Some advocate for media outlets to self-censor the images they broadcast and share. Others believe that the news of today is a mirror of ourselves. Thankfully, I'm not tackling those issues in this blog. But what I do want to talk about is how we can create future generations of empathetic and compassionate humans. There's no time to dissect how we can build more empathy than in the final throes of a contentious election.


Make Kids Aware of Their Own Feelings and then Others' Feelings Too. It will take most kids a few years to develop these skills- what many like to call "self-awareness." For the first years of all of our lives, we rely exclusively on caregivers for everything: food, drink, comfort, everything. Once our children are old enough to start transitioning away from constant care, they begin to understand their own needs and how to fulfill them. Often, parents focus on helping their children understand how to meet their needs: showing them where their food is, how to pour themselves water and of course, how to use the bathroom. It's always good to teach children to acknowledge more than just basic hunger and thirst, to teach them about emotions and what makes them happy. Once they understand these concepts, we can start to ask young people to recognize the needs in others and how, possibly, we can help meet others' basic needs. When you hear a baby crying in the presence of your young one, maybe ask them why they think he or she is crying. Maybe ask them why they think their family members are sad after leaving family gatherings. We can teach empathy by asking questions.

Model Behavior that Favors Equality and Sameness. This may go without saying, but we as adults are the source of most of our children's knowledge. We are the ones who can show them the way to an empathetic life. When we point out for children the things that make them similar to victims of tragedies, the brunt of insensitive jokes or the targets of bigotry or discrimination, the more we make sure that they understand that fundamentally, we are all the same. Along those lines, we should also set similar expectations for boys and girls: by perpetuating things like the "boy/guy code," the more we endorse systems that don't respect people's feelings and offer cover for bad behavior.

Talk about the impacts of choices and behaviors. There is a lot of research that shows that morality can't be built through incentives. If we could simply offer rewards for being good citizens with positive contributions to our communities, then we would probably be living in a different world with low crime rates and many more candy stores. The current research trends show that people display truly "moral" behavior when they have cultivated their own compass, based on a firm understanding of the impact of behaviors and choices on others. The more we can get children to understand that what they say and do can have immediate and big impacts on others, the more they can learn to self-regulate. Key to this is also getting children to understand the cues from others that will tell us how they feel.

These are just some pieces of advice for how to make young people more empathetic. What were some of the things that you picked up as a child, or better yet, have used as an adult to inspire better behavior in young people?