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As a newspaper columnist, Nancy Devlin, Ph.D. has written over 700 articles on subjects related to education and parenting. Welcome to her Classroom!

Teaching your Child Empathy

Being  able to put oneself in another’s place, to feel  what

he  feels and to understand what he understands is  an  attribute

necessary for the survival of the human race.  Its development is

so  important  that it cannot be left to chance.  It  has  to  be

consciously    modeled  and taught.   Empathetic  adults  produce

empathetic children.

Parents  can   help their child to develop this  trait    by

first  providing  opportunities  for  him to  understand  and  to

practice using  the  words which express feelings.    Words  like

angry,  happy,  sad can  be displayed  on the  refrigerator  door

with  the appropriate pictures beside them.  The child  can  help

pick out these  pictures which express emotion from magazines  or

he can draw them himself.

Once the concrete-thinking child understands what the  words

mean, parents can begin to use them in order to help the child to

understand  how  his actions  affect others. “When you  hit  your

brother, he gets upset and crys because it hurts.”  “Taking  your

friend’s  toy without asking makes him feel sad.”  “I feel  happy

because you helped me by picking up your toys.”

These  concepts can be reinforced through stories  in  books

and  on television.  As you read the story, ask your child how he

thinks   the character in the story feels and why.  If   he  says

the character is sad, ask your child what he would do to make him

happy.  If one of the characters is mean, ask what he could do to           

help  the mean child not feel so bad.  Ask how he would  feel  if

somebody did that to him.  Use the breaks provided by commercials

to  ask  the  same questions regarding the  TV  program  you  are

watching.   Using  TV  this way, makes it an  active  and  not  a

passive activity.

If possible, it helps to have a family pet like a cat or dog

that  the child can relate to and perhaps be responsible for.   A

pet responds to kindness with affection.  A mistreated animal, on

the  other  hand,  responds by becoming  withdrawn  or  by  being

aggressive.  These  responses   give  children  concrete,  almost

instantaneous  feedback,  that  all actions,  both  positive  and

negative have  consequences.

Cruelty to animals, especially in young children, needs   to

be  given immediate, serious attention.   These are the  children

who  are on their way to becoming  bullies and  murderers.   They

either do not understand that the animal is suffering or they  do

understand and that gives them pleasure.  These are the  children

who  have  been abused themselves or  have never been  given  the

opportunity to experience empathy in their own lives.

On the other hand, it tells you a great deal about a  person

when he is kind to an animal.  Movies use this fact to develop  a

character’s  personality quickly.  If they want the macho man  to

have tender side, they show him taking care of his cat.

Schools  can  help children by providing  opportunities  for

them not only to experience empathy but to practice it.  This can 

be  done through cooperative learning lessons,  school  counsels,

older children reading to younger ones, food and clothing drives,

visiting nursing homes, and so on.

Parents can tell their own stories about how somebody helped

them  that  day or how they helped or understood  somebody  else.

Children should be noticed and encouraged everytime they give the

empathetic  response rather than  the  negative, mean one.   They

should  be  encouraged to tell how it makes them feel  when  they

respond positively to another.   

It  is  never  too  early to begin  to  develop  empathy  in

children.   Professor  Alan  Leslie  of  Rutgers  University,  in

studying  the  development of perception  in  infants  and  young

children, found that what can be observed developing  in infants,

becomes  a recognizable trait by three to four years of age.   By

even  that  young  age,  a child can  infer  what  another  child

perceives even though that perception is different from his own.   

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