When my now-15-year-old son was a toddler, he had a little stuffed LeapFrog toy named “Tad” who sang about his feelings. Tad only sang three songs — one about happiness, one about feeling sleepy, and one about sadness. I’ll never forget the words: “My ice cream fell / it’s on the ground / my face is sad / and it wears a frown.”
Baby Leap had a big, sad frown on his face, and he sang the words in a sad way, so you really felt the full emotional impact of that scoop of ice cream hitting the pavement. Every time Tad sang the “sad” song, it made my son cry.
When I bought the toy, I thought it would be good for teaching my son about feelings. And I guess it did do that. But what I don’t think I fully understood was that it was also teaching my son — or perhaps just bringing out in him — empathy. My son was feeling empathy for Tad and his goopy, unsalvageable ice cream.
Experts say that empathy is a critical component of emotional intelligence. (The other key ingredient is self-awareness, which walks in lock-step with empathy.) Emotional intelligence has been shown to influence outcomes in virtually all areas of a person’s life.
This makes sense — how can a person be genuinely, deeply satisfied with themself or with their relationships if they lack self-awareness and empathy?
Feeling empathy toward others allows us to feel more connected with loved ones and those in our community. The more members of a community that feel empathy toward one another, in theory, the better the members of that community cooperate together.
But what’s a parent to do for a kid who doesn’t appear to have much natural empathy? Kids seem as likely to tend toward selfishness as toward kindness and generosity. But anthropologists believe humans evolved to cooperate with one another, and that cooperation depends on an ability to understand how another person feels. Truly, empathy is an innate human ability. Your child may seem devoid of it at times, but it’s there.
So how does a parent nurture a child’s innate ability to give a crap about how other people feel?
1. Model empathy.
We all know by now that our actions will have more influence over our kids than anything we verbally teach them. So modeling empathy — toward your child and others — will go a long way toward teaching them to notice and consider the feelings of others.
When your kid sees you trying to guess how they’re feeling, even when they’re acting like a little shit, they get to experience the relief that comes with feeling understood — or at least, the relief of feeling like someone is trying to understand.
2. Read together.
Read books with stories about people caring for one another — all different kinds of people from all different walks of life. Talk about the characters in the story, the mistakes they make and how they learn from them, and what they may be feeling and why.
3. Point out and praise when your child demonstrates empathy.
Sometimes when a kid is directed to how a person they’ve just hurt may feel, it can make them feel incredibly uncomfortable, ashamed, or even angry. It’s important to ask your child to accept accountability for hurting someone, even if in the moment it seems to backfire with crossed arms or stomping or a tantrum. Remain calm and follow through with whatever reasonable consequence you’ve established for unkind behavior.
But this shame reaction is why it’s even more important to point out when a child has shown awareness and compassion for others. It can be for the littlest things: “Aww, you saw your brother was cold and you brought him a blanket — that was so kind of you!”
4. Stay calm.
Let’s just go ahead and admit to ourselves that staying calm is one of the hardest parts of being a parent. It’s not even possible all of the time if you are a human with feelings.
But reacting to your child’s big feelings or misbehavior with even bigger feelings of your own helps them to calm down and think rationally about as much as it helps you to calm down when you’re frustrated and someone yells at you to calm down. In other words, it’s not helpful at all.
When you model control over your own reactions as you seek to understand how your child feels, they get to see a real-life example of empathy in action, even as you meet their needs. You teach them that not only are their problems solvable, but that you’re there to help them figure out how to solve them. They will use that lesson to empathize and problem solve with others. Win-win-win-win.
Even if you disagree with your child, listen to them. Hear them out. Listening is a crucial part of empathy — you can’t empathize with someone if you haven’t heard them out. Modeling listening is just as important as modeling staying calm, for all the same reasons.
Experts recommend that one way to make sure your kid feels heard is to ask about the “how” rather than the “why.” So instead of “Why are you so mad?”, ask “How did that make you mad?” or say “Tell me what happened” or “Help me understand.”
Whatever language you use, the point is to demonstrate to your kid that your goal is to actually listen to them.
6. Offer do-overs.
We all wish we had do-overs for when we screw up. We can actually offer this valuable opportunity to our kids when their first reaction to a situation is to be selfish or mean. If you catch your kid treating a friend poorly or being rude or selfish, step in and ask them to think for a second about what they’re doing. Is it kind? Is it considerate? How might they feel if the roles were reversed? Before offering your own solution or consequence, give them a chance to correct their mistake.
7. But maintain boundaries.
This one is often left out of conversations about cultivating empathy in kids or “gentle parenting.” Considering the feelings of others doesn’t mean being a doormat or putting ourselves last. Empathizing with your child’s needs without any consideration for your own does not send a good message to them about their self-worth or yours.
Let your child see you standing up for your own right to be treated with kindness and respect — with others, but also with them. Your child’s anger may be valid, but they do not have a right to express that anger five inches from your face, screaming at you. All emotions are valid. All reactions are not.
Caring about how our emotional expression impacts others is part of empathy and part of emotional intelligence. We should not be giving our kids carte blanche to spray their disruptive emotions all over the place with total disregard for anyone who may have to bear witness.
Parenting is a difficult, heavy job. We’re literally preparing the next generation to steward humanity forward. One of the best things we can do for them, collectively, is to give them the gift of considering others — while maintaining their own boundaries. Imagine living in a world where, instead of wealth, power, and clout, emotional intelligence reigned as the most desirable human trait. That’s a world I definitely want to live in.