5 ways to teach our children empathy in these challenging times

Empathy is at the heart of what it means to be human. It’s a foundation for good relationships and professional success. It’s key to preventing many forms of cruelty.

And where would we be without empathy in these times? Empathy is what binds us as communities and as a society, and it’s saving hundreds of thousands of lives as we battle the novel coronavirus. It is empathy that propels the legions of volunteers who are making protective equipment or shopping for the elderly, not to mention the health-care workers and others on the front line fighting this virus.

How can parents cultivate empathy in children during these times, especially when there are so many competing priorities? And how can they balance — and guide their children in balancing — self-care and care for others? The following are five guideposts based on research and the wisdom of practitioners.

Empathize with your child, and model empathy for others

Children learn empathy from watching us and from experiencing our empathy for them. When we empathize with children, they develop trusting, secure attachments with us, which is key to their developing the stability needed to focus on and value others.

Empathizing with our children takes many forms, including tuning in to their physical and emotional needs, understanding and respecting their personalities, taking a genuine interest in their lives and guiding them toward activities that reflect an understanding of the kind of people they are. During this pandemic especially, it is important to listen non-judgmentally to their hopes and anxieties, and to acknowledge the importance of these feelings.

Children also learn empathy by watching. They’ll notice if we treat a grocery store clerk or a pharmacist as invisible or, 

instead, if we express gratitude to these people for the critical role they’re playing in protecting us.

Make empathy a family priority

If children are to value other perspectives and people, they need to hear from us that caring for others is vital. Harvard’s Making Caring Common research indicates that even though most parents say that raising caring children is a top priority, most children aren’t hearing that message. Children are far more likely to report that their parents prioritize a child’s personal success more than caring for others.

Develop your child’s empathy muscle

Children are born with the capacity for empathy, but it needs to be nurtured throughout their lives.

Learning empathy is like learning a language, an instrument or a sport: It requires practice and guidance. Regularly considering other people’s perspectives helps make empathy a natural reflex and, through trial and error, helps children get better at tuning in to others’ feelings and perspectives.

Expand your child’s circle of concern beyond family and friends

Almost all people have empathy for a small circle of family and friends. It’s important to also focus on whom we have empathy for. Are we helping our children empathize with those who are different from them in terms of gender, race, class and other characteristics? Are we helping them empathize with people who may not be on their radar during the pandemic, but who face serious risks?

It is important that children learn to listen closely and attend to those in their immediate circle, and to also take in the big picture and consider the range of people who contribute to their lives. Children need to consider how their decisions affect members of a community as well as their country and the world. These times provide a powerful opportunity to help children understand how we are all linked and the responsibility that brings.

Help children manage destructive feelings effectively

Even when kids feel empathy for others, many feelings — including envy, anger and anxiety — can block their empathy. So can stereotypes and prejudices.

Developing empathy is not just a matter of building the empathy muscle; it’s also a matter of helping children constructively manage these damaging feelings and stereotypes.