teaching children empathy
Image: Ted Van Pelt

Written by Crystal Schwalger

You may not realize it, but empathy is one of the most important skills that we can teach children. Unlike most skills that we teach our children, empathy is an often misunderstood word. Many people hear the word “empathy” and think of the word “sympathy,” believing they are the same thing. While having sympathy is also an important skill to have, it is not, in fact, the same thing as empathy. Empathy is much, much more.

Empathy by definition in the Merriam Webster dictionary is “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions; the ability to share someone else’s feelings.”

Having empathy is more than having sympathy. Sympathy is acknowledging that another person is having some kind of difficulty. Those feelings of sympathy may or not include support and comfort. When someone is going through a hard time, you can feel sorry for them, but that is not empathy. Empathy transcends feeling sorry for someone. When someone has empathy for another person, you are putting yourself in their place. It is as Atticus Finch taught his children in the classic book “To Kill a Mocking Bird.” He said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus understood empathy. When we can see the world through someone else’s eyes, that’s when real change can happen.

So why is this skill so important to teach to our children? Because having empathy not only helps build and maintain relationships, but according to experts who study emotional intelligence, empathy is also the building block for our conscience. Basically, they are saying that people that lack empathy lack the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective and thereby leads to lack of conscience. Having a lack of conscience is often the trait that history has shown leads to men committing horrible acts against other, including slavery, genocide, rape and murder.

Experts also say that they see a link between bullying and a lack of empathy. As we parents know, bullying is a huge problem today in our schools and communities. As a parent of a child who has been bullied in school, I have come to understand and believe that teaching empathy is essential.

We live in a global society. We—as well as our children—can talk to and interact with people of all nationalities, religions, races, beliefs, colors, creeds, ages and gender. It’s no longer enough just acknowledging that there are those who are different than us. Empathy helps us to build a bridge between others and is the foundation of tolerance, compassion, and harmony, all things that are needed in today’s world.

All we have to do is look on the evening news or even on our own Facebook feeds to see that there is a serious lack of empathy going on around us. Children not only see those things but often do not know or understand how they should react. That is where we as parents can come in and talk to our children and teach them about empathy.

Because empathy is a skill that can be learned and amplified, there are ways that we can help our children learn how to magnify it. First of all, we need to show empathy to our children. When your child is distressed about something, show them empathy by really listening to them and feeling for them. Most parents I know have no problem doing this for small children; it becomes more difficult though when a child grows older because they often don’t listen to your advice, especially teenagers. However difficult it may be, it is imperative that we live what we want them to learn. As with most everything our children learn, they learn best by watching us, their parents. Children will follow your lead when it comes to most emotionally charged situations. How you choose to handle them will be the best teaching tool you can have to enable your child to learn empathy.

Secondly, we can help our children to put words into their emotions. Feelings are very complex, and sometimes children are not sure what they are really feeling. We can talk to them and help them to understand their emotions. When they can express what they are feeling, they will be able to better understand what others are feeling.

Another way we can help them to learn empathy is to point out emotions when disciplining. For example, when two children are arguing over toys or have said unkind things, talk to them about how the other person feels. This takes practice of course, but it can help the bond between siblings grow stronger if they can learn to see things from the other’s point of view.

We can also reward them when we see them being empathetic. Empathy is a learned skill that can get stronger over time with use. As parents, we can pay attention to how our children are interacting with others and thank them when we see them using it. Letting them know that we are proud of them and that we value their words and actions can make a huge difference if a child continues to use empathy.

Lastly, as with any skill, it takes time, practice, and much patience on our part. We didn’t learn it overnight, and neither will they. They can learn it, though, and with that valuable skill, they can make a huge impact on making our world a better place to live.

Crystal Schwalger has loved writing ever since she could remember. Her love of learning led her to Dixie State University where she graduated with a degree in English and Communications. She is passionate about writing and believes that you should never give up on your dreams. She is happiest when she is at home enjoying her backyard green spaces with her family. She currently lives in Washington Utah with her husband, her children, and her dog Kali.