Seven Ways to Foster Empathy in Kids

By Jill Suttie | June 10, 2016 | 0 comments

In our age of narcissism, a new book offers research-based tips for encouraging children to be empathic.

We live in the age of the selfie—the ubiquitous symbol of narcissism.

But this focus on the self to the exclusion of others is harmful to our children, according to Michele Borba, author of the new book UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. More than the photos themselves, the idea behind them—that we are the center of our world—is the problem, reflecting a decreased focus on others and a lack of empathy.

According to Borba, low levels of empathy are rampant in our culture, and in kids that’s associated with bullying, cheating, weak moral reasoning, and mental health issues, like anxiety and depression. Her book is a call to parents, teachers, and other caring adults to help encourage children to develop empathy and generosity toward others, and it’s full of research-based tips on how to do so.

Some tips are focused on increasing emotional literacy in general, by helping kids to better understand their own emotions and the emotions of others. Others involve helping kids to foster a sense of themselves as caring people, by engaging them in activities where they can be generous and by modeling generosity toward others ourselves. Still others involve helping kids to become moral heroes, in school and out of it. Below are some of Borba’s suggestions.

1. Help kids develop a moral identity

In one study, researchers found that three- to six-year-old kids who were praised for helping others were less likely to act more generously in the future than kids who were praised for being a helpful person. Borba argues that we need to help kids develop a moral identity, not just praise them for good deeds.

“To respond empathically, kids must see themselves as people who care and value others’ thoughts and feelings,” she writes. “Missing that crucial piece leaves a huge void in a child’s empathy quotient.”

2. Give kids “do-overs”

Of course, it’s not always easy to get kids to take another’s perspective. When they speak or act insensitively, it can be helpful to allow kids to have “do-overs,” rather than simply punishing them. Borba suggests four steps to help kids respond more empathically with “CARE”: 1) Call attention to uncaring behavior; 2) Assess how uncaring affects others, helping kids to understand another’s perspective; 3) Repair the hurt and make amends; and 4) Express disappointment for uncaring behavior, while stressing expectations for caring behavior in the future.

“The trick is to look for those discipline moments when we can help our children grasp how their actions affect others so it stretches their empathy, and one day they can act right without our guidance,” she writes.

3. Encourage empathy through stories

Borba encourages adults to help kids build their empathy muscles through play-acting, reading books that let them get inside characters’ minds, and watching inspiring movies. Activities that allow careful reflection on how others are feeling in a given situation help build the skills needed for moral action.

“The right book can stir a child’s empathy better than any lesson or lecture ever could,” writes Borba. “And the right book matched with the right child can be the gateway to opening his heart to humanity.”

4. Support empathy education in school

Borba makes several suggestions about ways schools can teach kindness and empathy. For example, at one school, the teachers have implemented a kindness board for listing kind acts; another brought in Playworks, a program for teaching cooperation and empathy on the playground. At yet another school, they’ve used the cooperative learning program Jizzsaw to help students decrease prejudice and increase caring in the classroom.

5. Examine your values

Still, too often these are isolated efforts by individual teachers or schools. Part of the problem, according to Borba, stems from our overly competitive culture, and the fact that many kids are pushed to succeed academically rather than pushed to be kinder, better people. Even if parents say they value kindness and compassion, if they only praise achievement, they give the wrong impression to their kids.

“If we are serious about raising a kindhearted, caring generation, then our expectations must be a lot clearer to our kids,” writes Borba. “And understanding how kindness benefits children and gives them an advantage for success and happiness might be just the motivator to change our own ways.”

6. Be mindful of social media use

Borba also bemoans social media culture, which can take time away from face-to-face encounters where empathy is born. She advises parents to pay careful attention to how much time their kids spend online and to make sure that time is balanced with more in-person conversations and a focus on caring.

7. Help kids find their inner hero

The book also discusses heroic action in kids, including what prompts kids to stand up to bullies. A lot of kids don’t intervene in bullying because they feel powerless, don’t know what to do, assume someone else will intervene, or worry they won’t get support from adults.

To help our kids act courageously, it’s important that we help kids find their inner hero by setting a good example of standing up for others ourselves, by teaching them how to effectively say no to a bully and diffuse bullying situations, and by making them aware of how peers can support each other. Research has shown that the best way to stop bullying is to get kids to stop being bystanders and to step in to turn the situation around.

“Mobilizing children’s courage to be Upstanders may be our best hope to stop peer cruelty,” writes Borba.

Her stories of individual heroic kids were inspiring. From 11-year old Trevor Ferrell, who distributes blankets to the homeless; to nine-year-old Rachel Wheeler, who raised money to build homes in Haiti; to 12-year-old Craig Kielburger, who formed an organization to fight child slavery, we see how nurturing a child’s caring spirit can lead them to become champions for others.

While Borba is thorough in providing ideas for parents and teachers, the abundance of advice and the number of acronyms she uses sometimes make it difficult for a reader to know where to start. But it seems clear that if want the world to be a better place, we do need to nurture empathy and compassion in our kids.

“Empathy has never been more crucial, but the ability to understand how others feel can be nurtured,” writes Borba. “It’s up to adults not to let the kids down.”

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About The Author

Jill Suttie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s book review editor and a frequent contributor to the magazine.


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