Empathy is an essential trait for parents to nurture in their kids. Kids who are empathetic have the ability to understand the feelings of others and share similar feelings of their own. They’re able to see issues from both sides and tend to build healthy relationships with people of all identities and backgrounds throughout all stages of life. Unlike other traits which are more complex and evolve later in life, empathy is developed fairly early on, according to research by Alison Gopnik, a renowned child psychiatrist. Gopnik found that empathy can even be observed in babies, who pat other babies when they cry.
Of course, that doesn’t mean parents should take their hands off the steering wheel. They need to actively model and teach their kids about empathy and understanding others without raising a child who is so sensitive they are hurt by it. For that, we spoke to Ann Pleshette Murphy a parenting therapist, author of The Secret of Play, and former editor-in-chief of Parents Magazine about what parents do to raise empathetic kids. She boiled it down to five specific behaviors parents of empathetic kids regularly exhibit. Here they are.
They Talk About Their Own Feelings
At its core, empathy is about understanding feelings and emotions. Parents who want to raise empathetic kids, then, must talk openly about their own feelings. Our gut reaction is to say “I’m fine” and shield your kid from any unsatisfying emotions. But that doesn’t help kids create an emotional vocabulary. “You help children be empathic by naming the feelings you’re having,” says Murphy. That means, if a kid asks how you’re feeling, be honest. Are you hungry? Tired? Sad? Say so. Speaking truthfully helps children understand that feelings deserve discussion and that they can be talked about in a casual context. Done regularly, this makes it obvious that externalizing the internal is a normal thing to do.
They Exercise Patience When Kids Are Having a Tantrum
At times it’s easy for parents to roll their eyes when a child is having a temper tantrum because, well, children throw a lot of tantrums. But exercising patience and talking it out is crucial for helping kids develop emotional intelligence. “When children are very upset and are overreacting to something, say, ‘Wow. You really wanted that. I’m sorry that you wanted that and you can’t have it,’” suggests Murphy. This isn’t about acquiescing to the tantrum itself, she says, but by verbally acknowledging that you understand why your toddler is upset. This doesn’t mean they’ll get their way.
They Are Aware of Gender Difference
Even though conversations about gender and boys’ feelings have come along way, parents might be reinforcing gender norms through play in ways they might not realize, says Murphy. “There is a lot of evidence to suggest that when parents are playing with their little girls, they use a lot of emotional vocabulary. They’ll say ‘The dolly is sad, let’s put a bandaid on the dolly.’ And with boys, it’s a lot about noises, like, ‘vroom vroom.’ and sound effects. There’s not a lot of ‘Oh, the firemen must be upset because the house burned down.’” In other words, parents who raise empathetic kids make sure to model feelings-motivated play to both boys and girls.
They Do Things For Others (In Front Of Their Kids)
Kids see everything. It should be no surprise, then, that when they witness their parents exhibit empathy and compassion, they’re more likely to do i themselves. It’s important, however, for parents to show that empathy isn’t exclusive to inner circles. “If your neighbor is not feeling well, we call her, and then parents should say to their kids: ‘Our neighbor is not feeling well.’” It seems simple — but it’s a way of building awareness, for your child, of what other people are feeling, and that how other people feel really matters, says Murphy.
They Actively Read With Their Kids
Reading fiction offers a great route into talking about empathy and other people’s feelings actively with kids. Parents should regular ask how, say, a main character of a book feels when they’re going through a new or scary situation, when they feel loss, when they feel sad. In doing this parents are asking their kids to flex their “emotional muscles,” explains Murphy. Without a regular workout, those muscles won’t form.