IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Want happy, successful kids? Teach them empathy

New research reveals that empathy is far from "soft," and it plays a surprising role in predicting kids' happiness and success.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

“What do kids really need to be happy and successful?”

Hundreds of parents have asked me the question, and my response surprises most. “Empathy” is my answer. The trait that allows us to feel with others has the reputation of being “touchy-feely,” but new research reveals that empathy is far from “soft,” and it plays a surprising role in predicting kids’ happiness and success. The problem is that empathy is widely underestimated by moms and dads, as well as the general public, so it’s low on most child-rearing agendas.

Rather than being a nice “add-on” to our kids’ development, empathy is in fact integral to their current and future success, happiness, and well-being. And what many researchers are starting to realize is that empathy is not an inborn trait. Though our children are hardwired to care, they don’t come out of the womb empathetic, just like they aren’t born knowing that 2 + 2 = 4 or who the president of the United States is.

Empathy is core to everything that makes a society civilized, but above all, it makes our children better people.
Empathy is core to everything that makes a society civilized, but above all, it makes our children better people.Jaren Jai Wicklund / Shutterstock / Jaren Jai Wicklun

Empathy is a quality that can be taught — in fact, it’s a quality that must be taught, by parents, by educators, and by those in a child’s community. And what’s more, it’s a talent that kids can cultivate and improve, like riding a bike or learning a foreign language.

But why should we want our kids to empathize? For starters, the ability to empathize affects our kids’ future health, wealth, authentic happiness, relationship satisfaction, and ability to bounce back from adversity. It promotes kindness, prosocial behaviors, and moral courage, and it is an effective antidote to bullying, aggression, prejudice and racism.

Empathy is also a positive predictor of children’s reading and math test scores and critical thinking skills, prepares kids for the global world, and gives them a job market boost. It’s why Forbes urges companies to adopt empathy and perspective-taking principles, the Harvard Business Review named it as one of the “essential ingredients for leadership success and excellent performance,” and the Association of American Medical Colleges identified it as an “essential learning objective.” In today’s world, empathy equals success, and it’s what I call the Empathy Advantage that will give our children the edge they need to live meaningful, productive, and happy lives and thrive in a complex new world.

RELATED: Plug your kids’ summer 'brain drain' with these 3 fun learning apps

Empathy is core to everything that makes a society civilized, but above all, it makes our children better people, and that’s why I’m concerned. In the past decades, our kids’ capacity to care has plummeted while self-absorption has skyrocketed, and it puts their humanity at stake. Today’s culture values “Me” more than “We.”

The best news is there are dozens of simple and no cost ways to help us raise more empathetic kids. My new book “UnSelfie” offers more than 300 ideas for toddlers to teens, but here are a few parent favorites to get you started.

1. Be an emotion coach.

Find natural moments to connect face to face to listen, and then validate your child’s feelings and boost emotional literacy. The face is the best tool for developing emotional literacy. And our kids need to understand emotions to feel with others and express their concerns.

2. Use the 'Two Kind Rule.'

Kids don’t become kind on their own but need regular practice opportunities. Try my girlfriend’s ‘Two Kindness Rule.’ “I expect you to say or do at least two kind things every day,” she’d tell her daughters. The girls then reported their kind deeds later at dinner. And all that practice paid off: her daughters are now kind-hearted adults

"Unselfie," by Michele Borba
"Unselfie," by Michele BorbaMichele Borba

3. Talk feelings.

Kids need an emotion vocabulary to discuss feelings and guidance to become emotionally literate. Point out feelings in films, books, or real people and use more emotion words.

4. Capture caring moments.

We’re quick to snap photos of our kids’ academic successes, athletic prowess, or cute looks. But those shutter clicks convey to children that those images bring us the most pride. Make sure to display prominently photos of your kids engaged in kind endeavors so they recognize that “caring matters.” And Instead of just asking: “What grade did you get?” also include “What caring thing did you do today?” By adding “caring” to our regular discussions kids get that grades and kindness matter.

RELATED: Lying to your kids, even with the best intentions, is never a good idea

5. Teach: 'Always look at the color of the talker’s eyes.'

Kids must learn to read people’s emotions face to face, so enforce the “color at the talker’s eye” rule to help them use eye contact, and pick up facial expressions, voice tone and emotional cue

6. Read books.

Reading literary fiction — even for short periods of time — nurtures empathy and perspective. Try books like “The Wednesday Surprise,”“The Hundred Dresses” and “Charlotte’s Web.” Read as a family, one on one, and then discuss together. Ask: “How would you feel if that happened to you?”

The best moments to nurture empathy are usually not planned — they just happen. Capitalize on those moments to help your child understand the power that "feeling with others" can have. The parenting road may be bumpy, but if you stay focused on raising a caring child, there will be no better reward: You will have raised a good human being.

Michele Borba, Ed.D., is an award-winning educational psychologist and an expert in parenting, bullying and character development. She is the author of 22 books including her latest, “UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.” For more information: