How Do You Raise Empathetic Kids?

The way we raise our kids determines the kind of adult they will become.

Posted Jun 09, 2020

I am often asked by parents, "What can I do to help raise empathetic children?" There are many things to consider in response to that question. Let's start at the beginning. 

Shutterstock (TinnaPong)
The best way to teach a child empathy is to lead by example.
Source: Shutterstock (TinnaPong)

Lawrence Kohlberg talked about moral development being in stages. During the preconventional stage (ages 5-10), the child is egocentric. This means they only understand the world from their perspective and struggle to see other peoples’ points of view. So, just talk to them about their own experiences and how it will impact them personally,    

You must take the time to explain the consequence their behavior will have and to enforce boundaries. For example, “your teacher will get upset and you will lose your TV time,” as they do understand that. Don’t expect them to want to do the right thing if privileges and consequences are not involved. They may not be able to at this point, depending on their emotional and cognitive maturity.  

At this age, they are watching you for your queues. They often understand their emotional reality only in the context of others. They also understand if they will get into trouble or not, but they have not really internalized why they must behave. This is why there is always a chance to explain why it is important to do the right thing, even if they won't get into trouble.  

The conventional stage (age 10-16) is when children start to develop more ideas of moral relativism and that things are not always black and white. This is the stage that more of the interesting conversations can come into play, like the concept of the “white lie.” Is it better to lie to preserve someone’s feelings? 

This is really where empathy comes into play and they can think about another person's perspective without your help. This is also a great time to have all those “what if” discussions, such as “what if telling the truth would hurt someone’s feelings... Should you still do it?” Or, is it better to be right or kind? Would you steal to save someone's life? Having those discussions can help develop their moral character. 

Dr. Carol Gilligan added onto Kohlberg's theories, saying that boys and girls may have different ways of approaching empathy and stated that “men's morality is based on abstract principles of law and justice, while a woman's is based on principles of compassion and care,” so they must be approached differently. Where a boy might respond better to more analytical “cost and benefit” discussion around the hurt they will cause, girls may focus on feelings and how that will affect their relationships.  

There is a lot that parents can do to raise kids who are open by learning about and from the experiences of others.

I like to use the example of Fred Rogers who hosted Mister Rogers's Neighborhood for many years. He was a master at how to speak to young children about difficult topics. So, “what would Mr. Rogers say to children right now?” 

He would address their concerns in a calm manner, he would be concrete, and he would be reassuring. Then, he would answer the question with a very simple explanation in language a child could understand. He would talk about feelings, and how others might feel about the behavior. He would never be afraid to admit when he had made a mistake. 

The best way to raise empathetic kids is to do so by example. Express your emotions, talk about feeling sad, discuss making mistakes, and your children will learn from watching you. Another way is if your child makes a mistake or shows failure, empathize and then emphasize that you must point out the other person's perspective. You need to help make them think of reasons why their behavior may have affected another.  

Social stories are a great tool for developing empathy in young children. It helps children grasp social norms, routines, and expectations, like walking down the hall, using restroom facilities, following lunch procedures, using manners, using greetings, asking for help properly, etc. Some options for resources can be found here and here

For school-aged children and beyond, the best way to raise empathetic kids is to do so by example. For adolescents, make them learn by experience. This can include volunteering at a soup kitchen, going to a rally for the underprivileged, raising money for a disadvantaged group, or tutoring low-income children for free (maybe even in their homes). These are all great ways to develop empathy as they will gain a new perspective.    

They can see how others live, what it means to have a disability or a disadvantage. That will help teens gain perspective and develop a strong sense of empathy.