Although children don’t possess the cognitive ability to completely understand the concept of empathy until around age 8 or 9, we can still teach them well in an age-appropriate way.
Smaller children might not understand empathy fully, but they do understand fairness, especially if something is not fair for them personally (“Mommy, why didn’t I get a candy but my sister did?”).
But they’re not totally selfish little beings. They also become highly concerned about other family members, friends and even strangers being treated well.
Luckily, there isn’t just one particular way to teach your child empathy. There are many different things you can do to help your child successfully cultivate this essential life skill.
For starters, you can begin by teaching your child manners. Good manners are a great way for your child to show caring and respect for others.
By the age of 5, they should not need to be reminded to say “please” when they ask for something or “thank you” when they receive it. This is also a great time for you to lead by example. Don’t forget to show courtesy in return by remembering to say “please” and “thank you” yourself.
When your child does something kind, like sharing her toys with her little sister instead of ripping them from her tiny hands, resulting in traumatized screams and cries, be sure to praise the positive. Specify what she did right so she gets the message loud and clear. “That was so nice of you to share your toys with your sister. She was smiling and happy playing with you.”
Sharing feelings is also a great way to instill a sense of empathy in your child. Listen to what your child tells you about how they feel. And don’t forget to share your own feelings. Helping children identify and understand the feelings they have makes it easier for them to handle the big emotions they feel.
Another great way to get through to your child is to remind them to think of other people. As the holiday season approaches, you can do something wonderful for people in need in your community and use it as a teachable moment for your child.
Have your child help you pack up food to take to the canned food drive. If possible, participate in a volunteer activity together. Or when she outgrows her clothes, have her help pack those up, along with any toys she no longer uses, to donate to those less fortunate.
You can even use story time as the perfect time to work on cultivating compassion within your young child. Point out the expressions on the faces of the characters in the books you read before you begin the story. This will help clue your child in to non-verbal cues and help them be aware of other people’s feelings.
Above all, remember to be patient and kind as you raise your child. Actions speak louder than words and your little one is always watching you. And if you watch closely, you’ll notice they’re modeling your behavior too. Give them a good model to follow and you’ll be well on your way to raising a socially aware, kind and empathetic child.