3 Ways to Encourage Empathy in Kids

It’s not just touchy-feely—kids who understand others are more likely to be happy, popular, and excel in school.  
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As parents, we encourage our kids to become independent and to feel good about themselves—and yet these worthy goals have had some unintended consequences in our social-media culture, says educational psychologist Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of the of the new book Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. “In the past decades, our kids’ capacity to care has plummeted, while self-absorption has skyrocketed, and it puts their humanity at stake,” she writes. “Today’s culture values ‘me’ more than ‘we.’” Research suggests that giving children opportunities to be empathetic not only helps them personally, but may even be the key to reducing complex problems such as violence and racism.

Dr. Borba, an old friend of Parents who’s worked with schools around the world, has many specific suggestions for how we can help our children be kind and inclusive. “Before children can ‘step into someone’s shoes,’ they must first develop the ability to read nonverbal cues in facial expressions, gestures, posture, and voice tone,” she says. Here are three ways to help.

Spend time with a baby. Observing an infant is a powerful way for your child to tune in to emotions. Your child could spend time with a sibling, cousin, neighbor, and you can help guide him to notice how the baby is feeling. He might say, “She is smiling…I bet she’s happy” or “Her body is slumped over…maybe she’s tired” or “He’s crying…maybe I should help.” Roots of Empathy is a school-based program in which a baby regularly visits with children in early-grade classrooms. It was developed by a Canadian teacher more than 25 years ago, and nine studies have found it to be effective.

Build a feeling vocabulary. The more of these words your child knows, the more savvy she’ll be about how other people are feeling: agreeable, apprehensive, annoyed, angry, anxious, awful, betrayed, bored, brave, calm, capable, caring, cheerful, comfortable, confused, confident, content, cooperative, creative, cruel, curious, depressed, disappointed, distracted, disgusted, ecstatic, embarrassed, enjoying, enraged, excited, fantastic, fearful, fed up, free, friendly, frustrated, gentle, generous, gloomy, guilty, happy, hurt, ignored, impatient, insecure, interested, jealous, joyful, lonely, lost, loving, overwhelmed, panicked, peaceful, pensive, pleasant, proud, relaxed, relieved, sad, safe, satisfied, scared, sensitive, serious, shy, stressed, tense, thrilled, troubled, unafraid, uncomfortable, worried. Interestingly, studies have shown that parents tend to use more emotion words with girls than boys.

Communicate face-to-face. Kids also learn to read someone’s emotions by making eye contact. When you’re talking to your child, stop whatever else you’re doing and face him. To remind your child to do this with other people as well, Dr. Borba suggests teaching him to look at the color of the other person’s eyes. To make eye contact more fun, have staring contests at home.

It all comes down to what Dr. Borba calls “timeless, unplugged parenting strategies.” That means less time with screens and more time with each other. She says, “The more children connect one-on-one and the less they tap, swipe, and ‘befriend,’ the greater the odds that their empathy will blossom.”

Diane Debrovner is the deputy editor of Parents and the mother of two daughters.

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