3 talking tips for raising empathetic children

Have you ever shared an experience with someone where instead of feeling heard, you were on the receiving end of sympathy, comparison or worse, a lack of interest? 

Empathy has the power to make or break personal and professional relationships.  It is a cognitive skill that develops over time.  We are all born with the potential to develop empathy but it is a taught skill, arguably the most important skill a parent can teach their child. 

So how do we teach empathy to our children?

Apart from modelling empathy and praising empathetic behaviour, picture books are a safe and neutral platform for teaching children this vital skill.  However, just reading the books is not enough.  It is the conversation that takes place while you read that really matters.  Parents who discuss the character’s feelings, motivations and points of view during story time, will build their child’s ‘theory of mind’ skills and help to raise empathetic human beings.  ‘Theory of mind’ is the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective and is a pre-requisite for a skill like empathy.  Both ‘theory of mind’ and ‘empathy’ are learnt skills that are necessary for ALL individuals to learn.

Top 3 Talking Tips for Empathy

1. Label and discuss feelings during book readings

Highlight the emotions of the characters by making comments such as “I think the character must be feeling frustrated because the plan is not working.”  We can even take this understanding further by probing with a ‘how’ question “How can we tell the character is frustrated?” This not only builds the foundations for empathy but also supports your child’s ability to infer meaning from the illustrations (an important skill in effective reading comprehension).

2. Model the Language of Projecting

Projection is when you put yourself in someone else’s shoes but for young children it requires them to understand quite complex language.  There are three types of projection:  projecting how someone might feel, what they might say and what they might do. 

  •  “If I was Alan the alligator, I would feel ashamed that I had been so mean and scary.” (projecting feelings) 
  • “If you were a pirate stuck on a deserted island, what would you do?” (projecting actions)
  • “If I was the tall man with twelve babies, I would say ‘Right!  It’s time for a nap everyone!’” (projecting words)

Tip:  The language of projection is challenging so it is important to remember to show children how to project by making ‘thinking aloud’ comments rather than simply asking them projection questions.

3. Pretend play is powerful

Empathy is best described by Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird who explains “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view….until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view….until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”

What better way to try to understand the feelings and perspectives of others, than to step into that character’s shoes, dress up and role play. Characters from books provide great opportunities for imaginative play because there is a shared context or experience. A child pretending to be ‘A Very Cranky Bear’ must figure out how to change their body language (growling, bearing teeth, sniffing or clawing), voice (roaring not talking) and movements (on all fours) to reflect their new identity.   

Tip:  You can model ‘pretending’ skills during a book reading by acting like the character – change your voice, tone or facial expressions to reflect the character. 

Role playing is actively experimenting with the social and emotional roles of life.  It is our responsibility as parents and educators to encourage pretend play in order to foster perspective-taking, negotiation skills, cooperation and last but not least, empathy. (http://thespoke.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au/make-believe-play-important-part-childhood-development/)

What does a speech pathologist know about empathy?

As speech language pathologists, we understand that developing empathy, like many cognitive skills, requires a great deal of underlying language skills.  The identification of feelings, the language of projection and the ability to pretend play are all vital pre-requisite skills required in order to raise empathetic children. Picture books are the perfect platform for starting conversations with your children that develop empathy. Discover our Little Birdie RichREADING parent guides in our memberships and book boxes that provide ways to encourage meaningful conversations while you read (www.littlebirdiebooks.com.au/shop/for-families).

Empathy is not a fixed trait, it can be fostered and it does take time to develop (https://www.todaysparent.com/family/parenting/3-simple-ways-to-teach-kids-to-have-empathy-for-others/).

But perhaps the answer to teaching empathy is easy.  Play with them.  Read to them.  Talk to them. 

As adults, this quote epitomizes the concept of empathy and is certainly a good reminder.

“Empathy is not racing over to turn on the lights. It is sitting in the darkness with someone.” (Brene Brown, author and psychologist).

Thanks for hearing our call.
Your Little Birdies,
Tania and Janice