When 8-year-old David Labond from Bloomfield Township, MI, learned that his friend’s beloved dog had passed away, he made a card with a drawing of the pup and circulated it around his class so everyone could write little notes. David’s mom, Jane, was really touched by the sensitive gesture. “Second-graders sometimes have unbelievable humanity in their hearts,” she recalls. The teacher, Krista Schroeder, noted that a half-dozen kids rushed to hug their grieving classmate. “They wanted her to know that she is loved and they were sad for her,” she explains. “The compassion they show each other is nothing short of beautiful.”
When kids (or even adults) show such a deep level of empathy, you can count on one thing: They learned what it means to be kind. Empathy, it turns out, is more than a quality we’re simply born with — it’s a skill that can be taught and developed as children grow.
Putting in the effort to nurture empathy has major payoffs: Not only is it the foundation of every single relationship kids will have, it also has a major impact on their success in school and beyond. A study of more than 270,000 students from kindergarten through high school found that kids who practiced empathy in social and emotional learning programs demonstrated improvements in attitude, behavior, and academics. Plus, research suggests that over the course of their lives, empathic people tend to be happier and healthier than their less compassionate peers.
The good news: Raising a caring kid doesn’t require a Ph.D. By taking advantage of everyday opportunities, you’ll foster an awareness of others and a sense of kindness that your child will carry for life. Our age-by-age guide reveals what kids are capable of at each developmental stage — and how you can make the most of it.
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Toddlers & Preschoolers
Worried that your super-selfish 3-year-old will grow up to be a self-absorbed diva? Don’t be. Young children are inherently egocentric: “Their world is all about them,” says Shauna Tominey, Ph.D., associate research scientist at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Children this age are still learning to navigate — and control — their own emotions. Plus, they’re just starting to develop the capacity to understand that not everyone thinks and feels the same way they do. How to help expand their me-focused worlds:
Validate Her Feelings
The first step in learning to help someone else feel safe, supported, and loved is to understand those feelings yourself, says Richard Weissbourd, senior lecturer at Harvard University and author of The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children's Moral and Emotional Development.
No doubt you show your little one how much you care in all sorts of ways, but here’s one specific trick to try at this age: Demonstrate your own empathy toward your child by creating an environment in which she feels heard, even when she’s frustrated.
If she’s wailing for a treat before dinner, say, “I know you want that candy but it’s too close to dinner. I know you’re disappointed,” suggests Mary Gordon, author of Roots of Empathy. It may feel awkward at first, but your kid will get the message that you understand her needs, even if you can’t meet them right away. She might still be upset, but she’ll also know what it’s like to feel acknowledged — not ignored.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh discovered that toddlers who helped and shared more readily had parents who often asked them to describe emotions in the books they read. So, help your kiddo develop a vocabulary that promotes empathy by talking about characters’ feelings in the movies you watch or books you read together. Pinpointing words for his own feelings will make it easier for him to control his emotions, identify others’ feelings, and work to resolve conflicts.
Connecting cues (like tears) to a related feeling (such as sadness) also preps kids to interpret and respond to these behaviors when they see them in real life. The key: Let your child take an active role. Instead of simply stating whether a character is happy or sad, ask him to describe what might be happening.
For example, you might point to a frowning character and ask, “How do you think the monkey is feeling?” followed by, “How did you know?” Then you can walk your kid through why the little monkey is sad and what might cheer him up.
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Between ages 5 and 7, kids become less self-centered and more attuned to things happening outside their own bubble, says Dr. Tominey. Case in point: There’s an increased ability to engage in cooperative play. “Kids this age like to work together to accomplish the same plan, like building a tunnel,” says Gordon.
These behaviors are supported by classroom expectations about sharing and working together. As a result, early grade-schoolers are ready for a few big realizations: Other people have feelings just like I do — and they might not be the same as mine. Plus, my actions can affect how other people feel. Here’s how to open those newly clear eyes even more:
Talk About Sensations
By teaching kids to link their own physical sensations to specifc experiences, they’ll develop a visceral sense of what other people might feel in similar circumstances, notes Dr. Tominey. For instance, if your child sees someone who is scared, you might ask her, “Remember that time on Halloween, when you saw a big kid in a scary mask? How did that feel in your body?” By recalling her pounding heart and prickly goosebumps, she’ll instantly know what someone means when he says he’s afraid.
Put Her in Someone Else’s Shoes
When she’s going through a hard time with a friend or even a sibling, try role-playing the situation and have her look at it from both points of view. Take, for example, a friend who wants to be BFFs one day and then turns down a playdate the next. When your kid is playing the pal who opts not to hang, she may come to realize that sometimes it’s okay to want to rest or play solo. It doesn’t mean you no longer want to be friends. When she’s playing the part of the disappointed pal, she can learn how hurtful a rejection can sound — which may help her be kinder the next time she turns down an invitation herself.
Another tactic: Use quiet moments in the car to make up stories about people you see out the window. Creating a fictional backstory can help kids tune into others and be sensitive to visual cues, which makes it easier to decode people’s feelings.
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By the time kids reach the middle of elementary school, they tend to have a lot on their plates, from music lessons to soccer practice. And while they’ve fully developed the ability to consider other people’s feelings, kids sometimes get the message that what they accomplish (acing a performance, scoring a goal) is more important than who they are and how they treat others.
In fact, 80 percent of young students feel their parents are more concerned about achievement or personal happiness than caring for others, according to a Harvard survey. Parents tell a different story, though: nearly all say raising ethical, caring children is a top concern. Clearly, there’s a disconnect between the message parents hope to send and the one kids get. Help them understand what’s most valued with these tactics:
Practice What You Preach
Children this age are keenly perceptive, and they imitate what they observe. They’ll notice whether you’re grateful and courteous to the waitress or bus driver, and the words you use will become their go-tos later on, notes Dr. Weissbourd. So the more your kids see your kind acts, the more likely they’ll follow suit (with very little preaching required).
Service activities introduce kids to the needs of people in their communities, showing them that not everyone lives the way they do, says Marissa Vogel, founder and executive director of Little Helping Hands in Austin, TX. That awareness not only helps children appreciate what they have, but it can also fuel a desire to help those who are less fortunate.
To help your child have a positive volunteering experience, consider his interests and attention span — most kids this age will probably only have the stamina to stay engaged for two hours, max, says Vogel (Visit Bigheartedfamilies.org to find the right project for your crew.) Whether they’re cleaning up a park or making cards, your kids will learn one very important lesson: With just a little effort, you can make a big difference in someone’s life.
PLUS: SOCIAL SKILLS GRADE BY GRADE
Yikes! Wondering how to respond to a cringe-inducing scenario? Follow this script to redirect your kid towards more compassionate behavior:
Your Kid Laughs at a Teammate Who Wipes Out
You say “Wow, it looks like James fell pretty hard. I’m worried that he might have gotten hurt. I know it can be funny when someone falls down in a movie — but this isn’t one of those times.” Remind your child that this isn’t slapstick, and then model concern, suggests Dr. Tominey.
If She Makes a Nasty Comment About Someone’s Clothes
You say “I heard what you said to Annie. How do you think that made her feel? How would you feel if someone said that to you?” Then, help your child frame similarities and differences (such as skin, hair, and style choices) as things that make us unique and special.
He Lashes Out While Playing with a Friend
You say “Please come with me.” First, remove him from the situation so no one gets hurt. Then, when he’s calmer, demonstrate that making amends goes beyond “I’m sorry.” Encourage your kid to see how he can help his friend feel better (maybe by offering a hug or a tissue).
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