Empathy: Why It's Important, Why We Should Nurture It in Our Kids
By Steve Palmer / parentfurther.com

One of the most important skills we can teach our kids is empathy. Empathy is the ability to see and value what another person is feeling or experiencing. When we see someone in pain and feel that response in our own gut, that’s empathy. When we see someone crying tears of joy at an important reunion and notice ourselves choking up, that’s empathy. When we see someone struggling with a problem and feel an emotional pull to help, that’s empathy. It’s a core skill for what psychologists call “pro-social” behavior – the actions that are involved in building close relationships, maintaining friendships, and developing strong communities. It appears to be the central reality necessary for developing a conscience, as well. Read more >

Raising empathetic kids might seem like a challenging task, but kids are empathetic by nature! Here’s a little story that illustrates this idea: When we lived in Chicago and my kids were all quite young, my two-year-old son accidentally locked himself in the bathroom. He could not understand our directions through the door about how to turn the latch and got more and more upset. His sisters (then about 4, 6, and 8), as they became aware of the situation, went through a whole gamut of emotions in response. They panicked and screamed, worrying he might never get out. They began to cry (loudly, I must say) in their concern for him. And they began to run about the house trying to figure out what to do – and giving me and mom many pieces of advice about how to rescue him.

Kids are empathetic. They are affected by other people’s feelings and are driven to respond. Learning how to support the development of those feelings in healthy directions is another of the tasks of parenting. And there’s plenty of research to support this idea.

Emotional intelligence has become an increasingly popular idea over the last twenty years. While “IQ” (intelligence quotient) attempts to describe our thinking and reasoning abilities, “EQ” (emotional intelligence quotient) attempts to describe our ability to work with our own and others’ emotions. The importance of these skills for personal, relationship and even work success has become increasingly recognized in the psychological community, and researchers and therapists alike are developing ways of helping folks learn and make use of these skills.

Technically, “emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to perceive and express emotion accurately and adaptively, the ability to understand emotion and emotional knowledge, the ability to use feelings to facilitate thought, and the ability to regulate emotions in oneself and in others” (Salovey & Pizarro, 2002).

One of the most important of the emotional intelligence skills is empathy. When we instinctively tell our kids to “think about how what you did made your sister feel,” we are training our kids in empathy and inviting them to recognize the importance of taking others’ feelings into account. So, what are some ways to help support our kids’ development of empathy, and the ability to respond to others in constructive ways? Here are a few points to consider:

  • Help your kids put words to their emotions. Feelings are complex bio-chemical realities that take place in our whole bodies, but not necessarily involving our logical brain! Naming them can be trickier than we sometimes realize. We have a great many words in our language to try to express the various shadings of sadness, anger or fear. Helping our kids find the right words that express what they’re feeling is a great way for them to come to understand the feelings of others.
  • Feel out loud. Modeling the behavior you want your kids to emulate is one of the best parenting strategies around. Kids are watching us all the time and what we do influences them as much or more than what we say. Share your thoughts and feelings about situations in the family, what friends are going through, what that kid at school your son is complaining about might be feeling, what you see on TV. No need to be heavy-handed or lecture about it. Simply share what the other person may be feeling or going through and how that affects you, makes you consider how to help.
  • Include empathy as part of discipline. Make sure you include conversation about how people are affected by a problem in the creation of the solution. Get kids to consider how their aggrieved sibling might have felt when they got hurt or when someone took their favorite pair of jeans without asking. Show empathy to the perpetrator, too, so they see how this empathy can guide consequences, as well.
  • Reward empathy. When we notice our kids doing the right thing, a reward “out of the blue” can be a powerful way to influence their behavior in the future. Pay attention to when your kids are responding out of empathy, reaching out to help, changing their behavior out of concern for another, and let them know you value and support what they’re doing. Recognition and affirmation are often reward enough, but an occasional ice cream cone won’t hurt!
  • Be patient. None of us is perfectly empathetic all the time, even as adults. To ask kids to put others first or even to be able to have the emotional energy to notice what someone else is feeling when they are upset is asking a lot. As with all things human, progress is slow and accumulates over time as skills (and brains!) develop. Just keep pointing these moments out and modeling the skills the best you can. Our kids will get there. After all, we did, right?

Interested in learning more about E.Q.? Here are some resources for further investigation:

For parents:

  • Elias, M. J., Tobias, S. E. & Friedlander, B. S. (1999). Emotionally intelligent parenting: How to raise a self-disciplined, responsible, socially-skilled child. New York: Three Rivers Press.
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Empathy: Why It's Important, Why We Should Nurture It in Our Kids