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Reader's Digest: Raising an Empathetic Child

10 Little Things You Can Do Right Now

See the world through their eyes

Empathy is the feeling of understanding and sharing another person's experiences and emotions. In order to teach a child empathy, parents must lead by example, working to see the world through their children's eyes. This may mean anticipating potentially upsetting events in your child's life and acting accordingly. "To empathize authentically we must understand our child's point of view, but often we don't, at least not at the moment," says Janet Lansbury, parent educator and author of Elevating Childcare: A Guide to Respectful Parenting. "At those times, when we simply acknowledge what we see—'It upset you when Joey touched your shoulder'—it can help steer us toward understanding and empathy." We might realize, for example, "Oh, that's right, it's almost nap time, and my daughter gets very sensitive to touch when she's tired." Before you tell your child that it's time to leave the park, or remind him that the really cool truck he's examining has to stay at the store, acknowledge his point of view. Acknowledge your child's feelings and wishes, even if they seem ridiculous, irrational, self-centered, or wrong. "This is not the same as agreeing," Lansbury says, "and it's definitely not indulgent or allowing an undesirable behavior."

Model empathy toward others

Studies suggest that empathy, or the personality traits that create empathy, might be inherited. Carolyn Zahn Waxler, a senior research scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has conducted studies on twins and empathy, told The New York Times: "There is some degree of heritability. There is no gene for empathy, there is no gene for altruism. What's heritable may be some personality characteristics." But even with the right DNA, kids are still more likely to imitate what they see more than what they're told, so modeling is a powerful tool. Try to cultivate empathetic behavior in your own daily life: Let your kids see you caring for others and attending to their emotional needs in an open and honest way. Ed Christophersen, PhD, a clinical child psychologist at Children's Mercy Hospital Kansas, encourages parents to point out to their children when they're modeling empathy. "Children are much more likely to show empathy toward others when they've seen their parents modeling empathy on a number of occasions, over a period of months or years," Christophersen says. "Merely discussing the importance of showing empathy, in the absence of actually doing it, is likely to be far less effective."

Talk about how others feel

Being aware of other people's feelings is important, but it's even better to then talk about those feelings with your kids. "Explain how other people feel," Nancy Eisenberg, PhD, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, told the New York Times. "Reflect the child's feelings, but also point out, 'look, you hurt Johnny's feelings.'" Don't just discuss other people's emotions in a negative context, but try to reflect aloud on your experiences of handling people's emotions sensitively. You might say, "Mrs. Rodriguez just lost her husband, and she's feeling very sad. I'd like to do something to show her that we're sorry she's sad. What do you think we might do?" Inviting a child to take part in the acts of empathy between adults can help a child understand how it works in other contexts and relationships. 


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