Teaching kids the art of empathy
Guiding children on feeling and expressing empathy for others. Storyberries offers free books and practical suggestions for nurturing children's natural capacity to be empathetic.
Our lives are inherently social, so knowing how to relate to others and avoid interpersonal conflict is essential. Empathy allows us to act with other people in mind. Developing empathy strengthens our personal development, improves our resilience and fosters our self-esteem. It is a skill we can nurture in our little ones from an early age.
Empathy is the ability to put yourself in the place of another and understand what they might think or feel, without it being necessary to express it directly. Empathy allows communication to be respectful, as we are coming from a place of understanding. Research suggests that the empathic process is derived from the action of mirror neurons, which are activated when we connect with another person’s experience.
Empathy is not something we can teach with words. Instead, we need to teach by example. Take advantage of your daily life, and the natural opportunities it offers, to help your child to learn empathy. Reinforce learning by using positive words each time the child shows empathy towards something or someone. We can encourage reflection on the feelings of others to raise our children’s awareness. Here are some other valuable ways to nurture empathy:
Teaching through body language and facial expressionsA very good way to help kids understand empathy and its importance, but without explaining the meaning as such, is through body language – that is, through gestures and facial expressions. In this way children gradually learn how their own behaviour affects others.
Practice listening to each otherIf we encourage children to attune to the situations and circumstances of others, it will become a habit that is done almost instinctively, rather than being an exception. For example, if we resolve conflicts by having a family meeting, the opportunity allows children to put themselves in the shoes of others and to really listen to what they have to say.
Encourage team workAs they grow, encourage children to not just serve and “do for” others, but to “do with” others, for example by working with diverse groups of students to respond to community problems.
Caring for the natural worldCaring for animals and plants, which helps children understand the role they play in helping another being to survive, thrive and be happy.
Help kids manage their emotions effectively.Children who do not show empathy are not lacking it. Rather, there is some other emotion that blocks it. For example, anger, shame, or envy can all inhibit empathy. If we teach our little ones to identify and express their emotions in healthy ways, they learn to question negative stereotypes, and their empathy towards others is naturally ‘released’. We can start by helping them to name difficult emotions, such as frustration or sadness.
Use books and movies!Kids enjoy the multisensory experiences of image and sound, and so are more likely to pay attention.
The New RoadThe children in this beautifully illustrated story feel empathy for the local insects when a new road is built.
Pako The Pigeon DisappearsWhen Pako the pigeon goes missing, her friends all come together to help, and show how much they care.
How to Tame a MonsterLwando uses his skills of empathy really well in this lovely story. He helps his little sister feel safer and less frazzled, by showing her kindness and understanding.
Article by Luzmery M. Romero Gamboa and Fleur Rodgers
Luzmery works in the area of clinical psychology as a psychotherapist for children, adolescents and families. Since 2016, she has run a Psychological Center in Venezuela called Psicoluz. She offers workshop facilitations to parents, is involved in recreational activities for children, and has been working as a freelancer since 2017 performing online psychotherapy.
Fleur is a meditation teacher in France and uses a compassion and loving-kindness based approach to meditation and slow-minded living. Fleur posts regularly to Instagram @rodgers.fleur . She has two children, is a qualified teacher in adult education and is the founder of Timeouttobreathe.com