Developing empathy in kids: Here's what to know

Empathy is the ability to understand and respect the perspective of others, and the root of a child’s ability to be kind and compassionate.
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By Michelle Balani

Empathy is the ability to understand and respect the perspective of others. It is at the root of a child’s ability to be kind and compassionate. A child’s sense of empathy appears early in life, which can be seen in the way that infants cry when they hear another baby cry or when they try to console one another on the playground. Studies have found that when young children take another person’s perspective and apply it to their interactions, they are more likely to succeed in social settings and are better-liked by their peers.

Show your child empathy. Listen carefully as he talks, acknowledge what he says, and ask him questions about his feelings and thoughts. As they get older, children’s capacity for empathy can mature through social interactions, although for some children it happens more naturally than for others. Have a picnic with your child. You can invite a few of his furry friends or action figures over and ask him about his day. If he tells you about a difficult encounter, ask him how he felt and what he thinks the other person in the situation felt, and have him tell you what he could do the next time.

Help your child explore other perspectives and roles. Reading stories like Clifford the Big Red Dog is a fun way to share and learn how people deal with common issues like making or losing friends or handling conflicts. While reading together, ask your child to tell you about ways a character in the book solved a particular problem. “How do you think he’s feeling?” and “Why does he feel that way?” are always good questions for children this age. Research has found that when families routinely do this, kids can learn a lot about other people’s perspectives and how their minds function.

Teach your child to be empathetic. Parent Toolkit expert and director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab Maurice Elias suggests that when a peer or a sibling is physically hurt or upset, you should encourage your child to reach out, see what’s wrong and offer to help. He says that too often, people retreat in fear when others are in distress, but those with empathy can identify with the hurt feelings and try to make the situation better.

Do community service with your child. Ask him to help you gather items from your home that you would like to donate, and deliver them to a local shelter. Or volunteer your time at a food bank during the holidays and take part in the activity as a family. This will give you a chance to explain to your child how and why others may be in need and help show him the importance of helping others.

Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Maurice Elias, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab; Jennifer Miller, Author, Confident Parents, Confident Kids; and Michele Borba, Author, and Educational Psychologist.