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7 Questions To Ask Kids To Encourage Empathy

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

These smart ideas for encouraging children to be more empathetic are from Start Empathy, a new education initiative created by the nonprofit Ashoka. The goal is to get kids and adults thinking about the topic—key for raising kids who understand others’ feelings and perspectives, and key for raising kids who care. These seven questions will help get even the most me-centric kid (and what kid isn’t?!) thinking about other people.

“How does that make you feel?”

This is a good question to ask when a child is upset or feels wronged in some way. Help them to be as specific as possible; the ability to name precise emotions and articulate how and why you’re feeling a particular way is key to what’s known as self-regulation, enabling a child to respond appropriately to feelings of varying intensity.

“Do you know at times I’ve also felt scared?”

While naming emotions is a great way to deepen a child’s self-understanding and emotional understanding, kids may not have the vocabulary necessary to articulate precisely what they’re feeling, and they might feel self-conscious for feeling that way. As a first step, try sharing times in which you, too, have felt upset or alone. Around the dinner table, don’t just ask your child about his or her day; be sure to talk about your own, and how certain developments or events made you feel, says Roots of Empathy founder Mary Gordon.

“How would that make your [brother/sister/friend] feel?”

For many of us, pausing to reflect on what it feels like to step into another’s shoes can be a powerful means of deepening our own understanding of others’ perspectives and choices. So when a child gets into a fight with a sibling or a peer and does something to hurt another person, our impulse is to ask, “How would that make you feel?” However, Dr. Chris Adkins, a recognized empathy expert at the College of William & Mary, suggests we instead ask the child how he thinks it made someone else feel. Drawing on the work of Dr. Martin Hoffman, a renowned psychologist active throughout much of the 1960s-1990s, Dr. Adkins points out the difference between “self-focused empathy,” which can lead to falsely projecting one’s own beliefs and circumstances on another person, to “other-focused empathy,” in which you carefully examine another’s thoughts and feelings.

‘What do you think [a particular character] felt? Why do you think he/she made those choices?”

Numerous studies have found a link between reading fiction and increased empathic ability. When you read your child a story, or discuss a book or a movie, don’t just talk about what happened—ask why it happened. Share stories about when you have felt the same way, and ask your child to tell you about a time in which he or she experienced the same emotions.

“What emotion is that?”

Play Pass the Face with young children, a great game the team at Peace First recommends to help kids learn to read facial expressions. Begin by making a face associated with an emotion (such as happy, sad, scared or surprised). Ask your child what emotion that face conveys, and have your child mimic your expression. The process helps to build kids’ emotional vocabulary, so that they can better describe their own emotions, and better understand those of others.

“If you had superpowers, how would you use them to help?”

Our ability to empathize with and understand others is only as good as how we act based on that understanding. When your child mentions a peer or a neighbor who’s having a hard time—whether due to bullying, or something happening at home—ask what he or she could do to make that child feel better.

“What were you like when you were nine years old?”

By sharing our own stories and listening to others’ narratives, we learn to understand one another and to take on new perspectives. Try tapping into your child’s innate curiosity by encouraging him or her to conduct an interview with a grandparent, or an older neighbor, and to ask questions like that relate to their own lives: “What were you like when you were nine years old? What was your school like? What was going on in the world at that time?” This type of cross-generational exchange will help to reduce feelings of “otherness,” allowing your child to gain a new appreciation of our common humanity.

For more tips on how to cultivate empathy, check out Start Empathy.

Image of two girls sitting in grass via Shutterstock

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