Supper was not going well for 2-year-old Benjamin. As his frustrations escalated to the brink of a full-on tantrum, his 4-year-old sister, Ellie, assessed the scene. "He's angry," she told her mother, Susan Rivers, of Newton, Massachusetts. "What can we do to make him happy?" With her mom's help, Ellie brainstormed a few options. Perhaps they could offer Benjamin a cookie. Or maybe playing with his Legos would bring him out of his spiral. "She was really trying to understand his feelings and figure out what strategies she could use to reduce his frustration and cheer him up," Rivers says.
Ellie's concern for her brother is touching, to be sure. But it could also be the key to her having a more joyful life. Empathy -- the ability to understand and be sensitive to other people's feelings -- helps us to be more deeply attached to our family, friends, and even strangers. "Empathy is probably the greatest single gift of our species," says Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., a senior fellow at the Child Trauma Academy, in Houston, and the coauthor of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential -- and Endangered. "We wouldn't have been able to survive without creating relationships and groups that could function together."
Putting yourself in someone else's shoes is also a crucial building block for other caring emotions. "It's how we develop gratitude, hope, and compassion -- which is the ability to act on your empathy," explains Christine Carter, Ph.D., a sociologist and happiness expert at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. One study there found that kids as young as 18 months could master a key component of empathy: the ability to tune in to people's emotions. By age 4, they move beyond making physical caring gestures and start to think about others' feelings in relation to their own. Many of these responses happen naturally, but you can make a more conscious effort to promote empathy-boosting experiences for your children. Consider these 11 things you can do to raise a truly caring child.
Your son notices if you are rude to your server when she brings you the wrong order. That's why San Francisco mom Kat Eden tries to be understanding when others make mistakes. Eden follows up with her sons, ages 5 and 7, with statements and questions such as, "I wonder how the waitress was feeling when she gave me the wrong meal" and "How do you think it would feel to be that busy at your job?"
Eden also helps her kids move beyond the standard "Thank you for the Polly Pocket" boilerplate by asking questions such as, "What would it be like if you spent a lot of time choosing a great gift for a friend and she didn't thank you?" and "How do you think Timmy will feel when he gets his very own letter in the mail?" Don't insist that your child pen the note herself -- if she's young enough that merely thinking about what to say is a huge task, write it for her and let her sign it.
If you tell your daughter to be mindful that her words have an impact on others' feelings but then you turn around and lay into your husband for some minor misstep, you're sending her confusing messages, says Robin Stern, Ph.D., adjunct associate professor of communications and education at Columbia University's Teachers College, in New York City. So apologize to your husband in front of your daughter. Then say something like, "I was feeling really sad that Daddy had to work tonight, and I took it out on him. I'm sorry I acted mean."
Spend a few minutes each day pointing out different expressions and giving them a name -- happy, sad, mad, angry. You can ask your preschooler to help make "feelings flash cards" by cutting out pictures of faces from magazines and gluing them to index cards. As your child gets older, the emotions can get more nuanced -- surprise, shyness, confusion, irritation -- and you can add body language to the facial gestures. When you read books together, encourage your child to name the emotions of the different characters.
Use mealtime as an opportunity for emotional reflection. "Try to resist fighting about food so you can focus on simply being together," says Dr. Perry. That's what the Cleveland family, of Minneapolis, does. They start their dinners by having each person, including their sons, ages 10 and 12, offer one compliment and one thank-you. "Some nights it's as simple as the fact that we're having hamburgers, but they appreciate the effort I took to make them. It's a nice way to connect," says Anne, the boys' mother.
When you watch your daughter offering a playmate some apple slices, call attention to it by saying, "That was very kind of you to give her a few when you didn't have very many." Then add something like, "I'll bet she was a little envious that you brought a snack to the park when she didn't. How do you think it made your friend feel when you shared with her?"
Sure, it's great that your son can thank the convenience-store clerk. But lavishing praise on him for fairly ordinary tasks won't make him more empathetic. "Overpraising is a distraction," says Polly Young-Eisendrath, Ph.D., author of The Self-Esteem Trap. "When kids expect praise for very small accomplishments, it actually gets in the way of their thinking about other people's needs."
If it's the middle of the afternoon and your toddler is melting down, Dr. Carter suggests you say something like, "You probably need a nap. I get grouchy when I'm tired too. Let's go home and lie down." This shows in a warm and loving way that you understand and respect how she's feeling.
A growing number of schools have programs that teach social and emotional skills. Exploring a topic on an emotional level lets children get more involved in a subject -- and therefore remember what they are taught, says Marc Brackett, Ph.D., deputy director of Yale University's Health, Emotion, and Behavior Laboratory and lead developer of the Ruler Approach to Social and Emotional Learning, which includes a Feeling Words curriculum for pre-K through 12th-grade classes. So when kids learn about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, they also spend time talking about how his wife, Coretta Scott King, felt on that awful day and how they would have felt if they were Dr. King's widow. If your child's school doesn't offer a social and emotional learning program, approach your PTA about asking the school board for one. (For resources, check out therulerapproach.org.)
You may worry that introducing kids to life's harsher realities will be too upsetting. But the reverse is actually true, says Dr. Carter. "Ironically, when you expose children to the sufferings of others, they end up feeling grateful for what they have and proud of being able to help someone." Every Christmas Eve since her three children (ages 5, 8, and 10) were born, Heidi King and her husband have taken the kids to volunteer at a homeless shelter near their house in Tallahassee, Florida. "We teach them that they have been blessed and that it is their responsibility to help others," says King. "And I want them to see this as a responsibility -- not an option. My 8-year-old, upon learning that a lunchroom lady's house had burned, took her piggy bank to school without telling me and donated the entire contents -- more than $100. She thought they could use it to buy food."
Look for opportunities to have conversations about tolerance and respect. When Alexis Scocozza's children were toddlers and preschoolers, she would take them with her to the school where she taught kids with serious medical issues. "They would see children with feeding tubes, who are blind, or who can't walk," says Scocozza, of New Fairfield, Connecticut. "If you don't give kids the tools to be comfortable around children with special needs, all of a sudden they're 10 years old and don't know how to handle it when they encounter someone who's different." Her approach has certainly worked. Last year, when her daughter, Maya, was in fifth grade, she mentioned that she'd won an extra pass to play Wii at recess. Turns out that she'd volunteered to partner with two other classmates who hadn't been chosen for a group during gym. "I told her how thoughtful that was, but to her it was just normal and the right thing to do."