How to Raise an Empathetic Kid, but Not a Conflict-Averse Wimp

Raising an empathetic and kind kid is a beautiful thing, but it's also important to prepare kids for the real world.

Empathy is an important trait for parents to nurture in their kids. Empathetic children, kids who naturally have the ability to understand and even share in the feelings of others, tend to build healthy relationships throughout all stages of life. Fortunately, this trait arrives early and naturally. Recent research done by Alison Gopnik, a renowned child psychiatrist, shows that empathy can even be observed in babies, who pat other babies when they cry. Still, parents can’t just let well enough alone. They need to encourage their children to think about the feelings of others while also considering their own needs and desires. 

Why Empathy Matters
Empathy is key to understanding the world. It helps us connect with others and build relationships with everyone and everything. You can’t really, in my opinion, have a healthy relationship with anyone if you’re not empathetic,” says parenting therapist Ann Pleshette Murphy, author of “The Secret of Play,” and former editor-in-chief of Parents Magazine. Healthy relationships work when people talk through conflict by naming their emotions and feelings, by understanding how the other person in that relationship feels, and why they might be feeling that way. Without honing empathy, relationship problems ensue,

The good news is that empathy is very easy foster in toddlers, in part because they have an innate sense of what it is and in part because parents are naturally empathetic to their children so modeling the behavior is natural. 

When to Teach Empathy
The conventional wisdom that kids don’t understand empathy until they are about five or six years old is outdated. Here’s proof: When Alison Gopnik presented a group of 14- to 18-month-old children with Goldfish crackers and broccoli then mimed liking the broccoli more, the children would do the same. This is a a fairly simple example of mirroring, sure, but it is also indicative that even very young children have some insight into the feelings and motivations of others — and are open to letting those feelings and motivations alter their opinions and behavior. The notion that empathy requires a level of sophistication that toddlers lack is simply not true. Empathy exists well before it can be articulated.

How to Model Empathy
Although parents pretty naturally react with empathy to their children’s wants or needs, they can model empathetic behaviors in more ways than one.

  • Use Your Words
    One of the easiest steps parents can take is to just talk about what they’re feeling. “You can help children be empathic is by naming the feelings you’re having,” says Murphy. So, if your kid asks how you’re feeling, just be honest. Are you hungry? Tired? Sad? Say so. It’ll help kids recognize that their feelings, too, deserve discussion and that they can be easy talked about even in a casual context.
  • Exercise Patience When Kids Are Erupting
    It’s easy to roll your eyes when your kid is having a temper tantrum because playtime is over. But be patient and talk it out. “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,’” offers Murphy. It’s not about acquiescing to the tantrum itself, she says, but by verbally acknowledging that you understand why your toddler is upset, and that even though they are upset, they might not get their way.
  • Be Extra 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.’”
  • Do Things for Others (in Front of Your Child)
    It’s important to show that empathy isn’t exclusive to inner circles. “If grandma is not feeling well, we call her, and then parents should say to their kids: ‘Grandma 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.
  • Engage in Active Reading
    Reading fiction is a great way to talk about empathy and other people’s feelings actively with your kid. It also helps them become better readers. By asking how, say, a main character of a book feels when they’re going through a new or scary situation, you’re asking your kid to flex their “emotional muscles,” explains Murphy.
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How Empathy Is Taught in Life
Murphy says she talked to her kids about their feelings constantly when they were growing up, and realized that she had gotten it right after her kid had an incredible response to her when she had a bad day. “I remember going back to work not long after my father died,” she says. “It had been a very upsetting time. I got home one night, I was exhausted, and not in a good place. My daughter was about three-and-a-half,” Murphy’s daughter did something to misbehave, and Murphy, in her own words, “uncharacteristically really snapped at her and overreacted.”

Her daughter got upset, and Murphy, who was also feeling upset, apologized and explained exactly how she was feeling and why.

“I said to her: ‘I’m so sorry Maddie. Mommy is upset about Papa. I’m sorry I said that.’ And then she ran out of the room, and I thought, oh no. I really shouldn’t have done that,” says Murphy. But her daughter came back in with a box of tissues in hand. For Murphy, this was a sign that her constant conversations about emotions through play, being kind to others, and talking about her own feelings, that her child truly understood empathy.

When Empathy Becomes an Issue
Some kids don’t need a lot of coaching to be empathetic, says Murphy. “Being aware of what your child’s natural temperament is important as a parent, period, but particularly important if you have a child who is sensitive, who is very tuned in to what other people are feeling, and therefore, vulnerable to feeling like they’ve done something to make that person feel sad.”

More sensitive children might be more attuned to empathy from the jump, and because of that, it’s important to make sure that kids don’t feel like every single bad emotion that other people experience is their fault — or that they did something to make them feel that way. They need to learn how to sift through emotions and understand what is and isn’t within their control. If they aren’t able to discern between the things that they can affect and the things that they cannot, they are likely to wind up paralyzed in social situation or confused at home.

A high stakes example? Divorce. Young children often believe it’s their fault that mommy and daddy are getting a divorce. “Children are egocentric,” explains Murphy. “They can think about other people’s feelings, but at the same time, all children think that a lot of the world revolves around them.” Obviously, this can lead to immense and crippling feelings of guilt. It’s important, therefore, to be clear with children that just because they have the power to feel what others are feeling, that doesn’t always mean that they have the power to change the way others are feeling.

It is also important to articulate to slightly older children that their feelings matter and that, at times, conflict is necessary. Profoundly empathetic children may struggle to confront antagonists or even their parents about substantive issues until they are encouraged to stand up for themselves. They key is to provide this encouragement without supporting reflexive selfishness. This sounds complicated, but in practice is often quite doable because humans are, by nature, social animals and tend to default to compromise — which is far healthier than capitulation.