How to Raise an Empathetic Child
“Children’s sense of empathy develops slowly over time, and they don’t truly recognize and understand other people’s feelings until they’re around 7 or 8 years old,” says Lara Darling, MD, a pediatrician at Riley Children’s Health.
Kids are born with the capacity to care about others, but they need your help to become truly compassionate. Here’s how you can start instilling kindness today.
Toddlers and preschoolers often seem insensitive, to put it mildly. They grab their friends’ toys, hit when they’re upset, and make embarrassing comments about people they see (“Mommy, that man is really short!”). But from a developmental perspective, this behavior is actually normal. “Children’s sense of empathy develops slowly over time, and they don’t truly recognize and understand other people’s feelings until they’re around 7 or 8 years old,” says Lara Darling, MD, a pediatrician at Riley Children’s Health.
Despite this, parents have many opportunities to nurture kindness even in very young children, who typically start showing the first signs of empathy when they’re 15 months old, says Dr. Darling. Get started by trying the tips below.
Model empathy. One of the most important ways kids learn to be compassionate is by observing how you treat them and others. “Children are absorbing everything you do at this stage, so you need to be consistent,” says Dr. Darling. Even if you show affection and concern for your child and talk to him about the importance of kindness, that can be undercut if he hears you swearing at a driver for cutting you off, for example.
Label feelings. In order to understand their own emotions and the feelings of others, kids need an “emotional vocabulary.” Young children know “happy” and “sad,” but require your help to understand more complex emotions like frustration. Story time is the perfect opportunity to talk about feelings, says Dr. Darling. “As you read, pause and ask questions like, ‘This boy looks upset. Why do you think he’s upset?’” she says.
Praise your child when she’s kind. “Kids respond well to positive reinforcement,” says Dr. Darling. Be careful not to overpraise, however: If your child brings her brother his favorite stuffed animal when he’s upset, for example, a quick and simple comment like, “That was very nice of you” will suffice.
Don’t panic if he does something rude. Instead, explain why the action or comment was inappropriate. If your child points at an overweight person and says, “That man is fat,” resist the urge to get angry. Instead, apologize to the offended person; once you’re out of earshot, tell your child that some people are bigger and others are smaller, but that’s okay because we’re all different, advises Dr. Darling. “Young children aren’t trying to be mean when they say things like that,” she explains. “Recognizing differences is a key part of their development.”
Encourage helpfulness. Kids between 18 months and 2 years old actually want to be helpers, and letting them do so can help them become more considerate, says Dr. Darling: “They see that being part of a family means that everyone pitches in.” Just make sure the tasks are age-appropriate: You might ask your child to pick up their toys or, if you’re doing laundry, have her put away her socks.
-- By Jessica Brown