How do you teach a child kindness and empathy?

I had a conversation with a young father some time back. He was concerned with his 10yo sons’ lack of empathy. The young boy had difficulty showing remorse or understanding how others felt. his question was “How do you teach a child kindness and empathy?”

Learning the lessons of friendship, compassion, and empathy takes time, dedication, and patience. This is, however, one of the most important lessons you can instill in a child as they grow up. Both the family and the child’s community will benefit for the rest of the child’s life. The child will benefit even more as he learns to give and recognize how his actions affect those around him.

The way to feel happiness is to give service to others.

“Give,” said the little stream,
“Give, oh! give, give, oh! give.”
“Give,” said the little stream,
As it hurried down the hill;
“I’m small, I know, but wherever I go
The fields grow greener still.”

Experiencing the joy of service

To develop empathy and kindness without thought of reward,  a child must have opportunities to experience the joy that comes with service. This must be in both the form of example from those adults he loves and trusts as well as personal experience. Initially, the child must be led to think of others, given a chance to think about how another person feels and helped to develop the desire to give service.

Service can be as small as picking up something that someone else dropped and returning it with a smile. One parent can pull the child aside and ask “What do you think mother (or father) might like for us to do to help her/him?” and then help the child to accomplish the task. The aftermath of that small service is important as well.

When a child is praised and a ‘big deal’ is made about the act of service, it becomes less an act of kindness and service and turns into an attention-seeking moment. This results in a child doing the right thing for the wrong reason- in order to get attention for himself instead of doing something to make another feel good.

Say “Thank you”.

Better for the receiver of the service to say a heartfelt “Thank you”, and a brief sentence about how it made them feel:  “Thank you for doing that for me! It made me feel loved!”. A quick hug and then back to business. In this way, the child sees the response to his small act of service and learns how his actions affect another person. Do this on a daily basis and the child will begin to look for opportunities himself.

What is the best way to teach?

Children learn best by example followed by instruction. A child watching his mother and father do quiet, small acts of service for others on a regular basis, and seeing the understated satisfaction it brings will be more apt to transition to a young person and then an adult who looks out for others.

Here are a few ideas to start a family’s journey to compassion, kindness, and empathy:

  • One parent takes a child to the store and the parent asks what small thing the child thinks the other parent (or some other person in the child’s life) might like. Then, talk about that choice- why does he think it might be a good gift? How does he think the receiver will use it? If the item is inappropriate (such as a toy that the child himself wants) talk about other options and continue the process. The idea is to prompt the child to use empathy to make a choice rather than consider his own wants and needs.
  • Talk about the feelings of others and give the feelings names. If a child sees a child is angry because her toy was taken away, give him words to describe it: Instead of “She feels bad”, help him to say “She feels angry about losing her toy”. Teach the feeling and the reason.
  • Play the ‘Body Langage Game” with the family or a group of children (ages 8+).
  • When reading books together, ask the child what the person in the story might be feeling and why. This is very effective with picture books.
  • Draw pictures together with uplifting captions, pick or buy small flowers, and take them to a rest home or hospital to distribute. Speak with the child frequently about how the receiver felt and why. Don’t ‘celebrate’ afterward as that turns it from an act of service to being rewarded for doing something ‘nice’. Allow the feelings of another person’s happiness to be the reward.
  • Talk about empathy and how it relates to bullying. 
  • Bake Cookies, or grow a small pot of microgreens and deliver it to a neighbor. Make sure to hug your child afterward and express how much you enjoyed seeing the neighbor’s happiness.

Here is a microgreen recipe that is perfect for sharing.

How do you encourage empathy in your children, grandchildren, or those children and youth that you work with? Please share your ideas and experience in the comments!