We all want to envision the future as a place where kindness and empathy prevails, and compassion bridges the gap between people. But in order to achieve such a vision, we first need to cultivate these essential qualities in the next generation.
In this article, we’ll explore the importance of empathy in child development, along with five strategies for teaching empathy to kids, right from their early years.
What is empathy?
It might sound like a simple question with a simple answer, but the reality is that empathy is much more complex than most of us realise.
Empathy is generally defined as the ability to sense and understand other people’s emotions, as well as being able to imagine seeing things from their point of view. It is a core element of emotional intelligence.
Interestingly, numerous studies have shown that people can actively increase (or restrict) their empathic abilities. In that way, empathy is more like a skill than a natural impulse.
While empathy doesn’t necessarily lead to helping people in need, it is considered to be the first building block of living a moral life.
Why teaching empathy is important for child development
Understanding what empathy is for kids is essential in fostering their social and emotional development.
Young children tend to be naturally ego-centric. They are much more likely to think mostly – if not entirely – about themselves and their immediate needs. The needs and emotions of others are often too complex for them to fully grasp.
Developing a sense of empathy marks a critical developmental stage for young children. Empathy will help them not only in their younger years, but also as they progress into adult life.
As well as helping to build confidence in your child, teaching young children to develop a sense of empathy can:
- Foster a sense of security and encourage them to build stronger relationships with others
- Encourage tolerance of others
- Nurture social harmony
- Promote good mental health
5 strategies for teaching your children empathy
Looking for empathy activities to engage in with your child?
Here are five practical ways to teach children empathy and actively foster a brighter future filled with compassion and kindness.
1. Act as a role model
Throughout child development, children naturally learn by observing and imitating the behaviour of their parents and caregivers. As a parent, you play a crucial role in shaping your child’s empathy. Model empathetic behaviour in your daily interactions, whether it’s showing kindness to others, actively listening, or demonstrating understanding and compassion. Your child will absorb these actions and incorporate them into their own behaviour, creating a foundation for empathy to flourish.
2. Encourage taking perspectives
Empathy begins with the ability to see the world from someone else’s perspective. Encourage your child to step into others’ shoes by asking questions like, “How do you think your friend felt when that happened?” or “Why do you think your sibling is upset?” Prompt them to consider different viewpoints and emotions.
The importance of play in broadening your child’s understanding of others’ perspectives cannot be overstated. Play is a natural and powerful way for children to explore the world, interact with others, and develop crucial social and emotional skills, meaning it provides a great platform on how to explain empathy to a child.
Through imaginative play, children have the opportunity to step into different roles and perspectives, whether they are pretending to be a doctor, a teacher, or even a superhero. This kind of play allows them to see the world through different lenses and understand how others may think, feel, and react in various situations.
By fostering this skill, you empower your child to understand and empathise with the emotions and needs of those around them.
3. Teach emotional regulation
Empathy flourishes when children can recognise and manage their own emotions. Encourage your child to name their emotions and validate their feelings. By teaching them that it’s okay to experience different emotions, you create a safe space for emotional expression and empathy to grow. Help them develop healthy coping mechanisms, such as deep breathing, counting to ten, or engaging in calming activities like drawing or listening to music.
When children can regulate their emotions, they are better equipped to empathise with others’ feelings and respond with compassion.
4. Encourage kindness and compassion
Kindness and compassion are integral to empathy. Foster a culture of kindness in your home by encouraging acts of kindness towards others. Involve your child in simple acts of giving, such as writing thank-you notes, sharing toys, or helping someone in need. Engage them in conversations about the impact of their actions on others’ well-being.
Caring for animals is another powerful way to promote empathy, as it directly shows children how their actions can help another living being. Encourage your child to nurture and care for pets or wildlife, instilling a sense of empathy and responsibility towards all living creatures.
5. Consider books and media that teach empathy
Storytelling is a powerful tool for fostering empathy in children. Books, movies, and television shows offer opportunities for children to connect with diverse characters, experience different perspectives, and understand a range of emotions. Choose age-appropriate literature and media that explores empathy, kindness, and compassion. Discuss the characters’ feelings, motivations, and the lessons learned from their experiences.
After all, most of us feel empathetic towards fictional characters, even though they aren’t real. Utilise this natural inclination to spark conversations about empathy and its significance in real-life situations.
Role modelling and engaging with books and media that teach empathy go hand in hand when it comes to nurturing empathy in children. While real-life role models, such as parents and caregivers, play a crucial role in shaping children’s empathetic behaviour, fictional characters in books, movies, and television shows can also have a profound impact on their empathy development.
Preschool is the perfect environment for teaching empathy
Preschool offers a rich and supportive social setting where children can both learn and practice empathy skills. In preschool, children have the opportunity to interact with peers, navigate conflicts, and engage in cooperative play. Skilled educators guide them in understanding and respecting each other’s feelings, perspectives, and boundaries.
At Aurrum Kids, we believe in creating nurturing environments that prioritise empathy and social-emotional development. If you’d like to learn more about how our childcare centres value empathy and provide a supportive learning environment, we invite you to book a tour at one of our centres in New South Wales and Victoria.