Raising Empathetic Kids in a World That Can be Anything But

June 09, 2020

Nearly every parent has stared down at their newborn and whispered a promise to protect them from all the hurt we’ve experienced. From being left out on the playground to being stood up for a date, most people carry a list of cringe-worthy memories we hope our kids never experience. But, how do we ensure our kids aren’t the ones creating these painful memories for their peers?

Teaching empathy to kids as young as toddlers has never been so important. As we move into an increasingly interconnected world, our children’s success depends on their ability to manage their own emotions, identify and respond appropriately to the emotions of others, hear and respect conflicting points of views, and embrace people of every culture and race.

Sound overwhelming? Let’s take a look at the two most important skills.

Managing Emotions

Teaching your kids to accurately recognize, label, and manage their own emotions gives them a framework for doing the same for others. For young kids, this is as simple as labeling their emotions for them. Ask your toddler if he feels angry as he pounds his fists against the wall during a tantrum. Hug your crying toddler and softly acknowledge that their sister not wanting to play with them feels sad. By putting words to their feelings, you’re providing the framework they’ll use to work through them.

As your kids grow, start prompting them to notice what others around them seem to be feeling. When you see a girl crying on the playground, use it as a chance to ask your little one what they think she’s feeling. Do the same when the boy in front of you at the grocery store is denied sugary treats and yells. Take the lesson even further by asking your child if they can think of what might make the child feel better. Slowly your kids will start to be more observant of what the people around them are feeling.

Finally, give them the tools to work through their feelings appropriately. Rather than quickly dismissing a tantrum as irrational, validate the feelings and offer ways to process them. This can include stomping on the ground to expel anger, asking for a hug when sad, or taking some time for themselves when overwhelmed. As they develop these skills, they become less likely to lash out at others as a result of unmanageable feelings.

Expand Their Perspective

When kids are infants and very young toddlers, their world is all they think about. It’s a “me, me, me” mentality – and it’s entirely age-appropriate. However, as they develop, it’s critical that we guide them in seeing outside of themselves, recognizing that others often have differing points of view, and troubleshooting how to navigate these situations.

This starts with introducing young kids to different cultures and races. Whether this means signing them up for kids language lessons, stocking up on multicultural books, or watching shows that feature kids of multiple nationalities, introduce your kids to a host of cultures, religions, and races.

As kids enter preschool and beyond, they’ll organically encounter those who disagree with them. Whether it’s what game they should play on the playground or the friend whose parent doesn’t eat meat in their home, you’re sure to field questions about why things are different in other people’s homes. Welcome these discussions, invite them to ask you questions, encourage them to see things from their friends’ family’s perspective, and admit when you don’t have the answers. The tone you take during these conversations will model the tone they should take when engaging in similar conversations with friends as they grow.

Obviously this isn’t a complete list. But, it’s a start. Open the conversation, embrace feelings of all kinds, and model the behavior you want to see. Your kids are our future.



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