And just as importantly, teach her how to show she cares.
children hugging
Credit: Image Source/ Veer

When emergencies happen, some people run toward them and some people run away. I think my 3-year-old son is going to be in the first camp, but he's got a ways to go before he can be truly helpful. It's not because he's young, but because he doesn't really know how to help yet. When he's on the playground and he sees another child in tears, he drops whatever he's doing and runs at full speed to the other child. Then he stands as close as he can get and looks on with grave concern, unsure what to do next.

Because I'm a developmental psychologist, I'm fascinated by playground behavior. From what I've observed, my son's behavior is an instinct toward caring. Studies show that even very young babies react to the distress of others. My husband and I have also cultivated that instinct. We talk about being kind and paying attention to others, and we discuss why it's important to understand other people's feelings. But we also need to help our child take the next step. Just because he cares about other people doesn't mean he always knows what to do -- and knowing what to do is just as important.

My colleagues at the Making Caring Common Project, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, call this the empathy-action gap. The gap occurs when people feel concerned about someone else -- they notice them and care about them -- but they don't do anything to help. We don't usually recognize the gap even though it happens all the time. How often have I felt compassion for a homeless person on the street but not gotten involved -- not even gotten close? How many times do we grimace and turn away when we see oppressed and traumatized people on the news? The gap is everywhere around us, and it makes you wonder: How useful is it to care if we don't do anything about it?

Where We Fall Short

There are many reasons people don't act. One of them, especially for young kids, is that they don't know how -- and we, the adults, don't teach them. When I see a child do something unkind on the playground, I often hear the parent say that the kids involved need to "work it out for themselves." The parent doesn't step in, either to explain the hurt that was caused or what can be done to fix the situation. Often, the parents of the other child also miss an opportunity to teach the child how to advocate for him or herself. Of course, kids should learn how to solve conflicts on their own, and age 3 or 4 is a good time to start. But we shouldn't expect them to figure it out by themselves. Think about it: We expect our children to become independent readers, but we teach them phonics first. We expect them to play games with their friends, but we teach them about rules and why they matter. Why would we expect them to know how to look at life from another kid's perspective, to speak up for themselves, or to help another kid without any suggestions from us?

Going Beyond "The Golden Rule"

One of the best ways to teach kids anything is by scaffolding: providing just enough assistance so that they can do a new task for themselves and then gradually reducing the amount of help until they are fully independent. Scaffolding is exactly what we need to do when it comes to building our children's capacity to care about, act kindly toward, and help others. Talking to kids about "The Golden Rule" of treating others the way you want to be treated is a good start, but it's too abstract to be effective on its own. It doesn't give them specifics of what to do, or challenge them to think deeply about the people and situations around them. We should ask them questions and engage them in conversation.

For instance, I could ask my son, "What could you have done to help that boy who was crying?" and then I could add to his suggestions with a few of my own. He'll start to remember these ideas so that I don't have to remind him. I can provide specific language to use in tough situations. Giving children a mantra to use when they see someone being unkind -- like "That's not okay. Please stop." -- might sound forced, but it's actually very empowering for them. They will learn to make it their own and it will become natural.

This isn't the same thing as telling our kids what to do, by the way. When we simply tell them what to do, they don't internalize it or learn to do it on their own next time. But when we give them language and show them when to use it, they'll know how to do it when the time comes.

Leading By Example

We should also model solutions for our children. At the dinner table or in the car, we can tell them stories we saw or heard during the day of how people took action when they saw something that bothered them. I could tell my son about how a stranger tried to pull my sweater out of the escalator when I dropped it. I could tell him how I bought lunch for a colleague who seemed down and gave her the chance to talk. Too often, we share these stories with partners and friends, but we don't think to share them with our children. We parents should also teach by example when we are with our children, for instance, standing up for someone who is being teased or gossiped about.

All of these strategies teach children ways to act on their feelings for others, but they do something else equally important: They show that we, the adults, have a deep commitment to acting in kind and compassionate ways -- and that we expect the same of them. Knowing how to take action isn't enough if our children don't believe it's vitally important to do so even when it's hard. I recently saw a video clip of a city bus driver who stopped his vehicle loaded with passengers to keep a woman from jumping off an overpass into oncoming traffic. "It was meant to be. I was supposed to be there for her at that moment," he said later. Imagine if all our children grow up to have what that bus driver has: the intentional habit of noticing others around him, even if they are strangers; the belief that he has a right and a responsibility to help; and an idea of what to say and do.

Little by little, my son is learning how to bridge the empathy-action gap. I heard from a friend that when her daughter was in tears at school last week, he said, "You look like you could use a hug." I didn't tell him to do it, but I've said similar things to him when he felt down, and his father has suggested ways he could comfort friends who are upset. He may have been born with an instinct toward caring, but he is learning what to do with it.

Copyright © 2014 Meredith Corporation.