Empathy is an essential trait for parents to nurture in their kids. Empathetic kids 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 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 offered five specific behaviors parents of empathetic kids regularly exhibit. Here they are.
They Use Their Words
At its core, empathy is about understanding feelings and emotions. Parents who want to raise empathetic kids simply by talking about their own feelings. “You can help children be empathic is by naming the feelings you’re having,” says Murphy. If a kid asks how you’re feeling, just be honest. Are you hungry? Tired? Sad? Say so. Be honest. It’ll help children understand that feelings deserve discussion and that there’s can be easily talked about even in a casual context. It makes externalizing the internal okay.
They Exercise Patience When Kids Are Erupting
It’s easy for parents to roll their 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 parents understand why their toddler is upset, and that even though they are upset, they might not 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.’” Parents who want empathetic kids should make sure they model feeling-motivated play to both boys and girls.
They Do Things For Others (In Front Of Their Kids)
It’s important for parents 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.
They Engage in Active Reading
Reading fiction is a great way to talk about empathy and other people’s feelings actively with kids. 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, parents are asking their kids to flex their “emotional muscles,” explains Murphy.