Teaching the Virtues: Empathy
Tips and Tricks
By Mary Dixon Lebeau
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Although you should start teaching empathy as early as possible, it’s never too late to start. According to our experts, other practical tips for instilling empathy at any age include:
• Teach manners. Don’t expect genuineness right away. Empathy is a higher-order skill than manners. It requires walking in another person’s shoes and treating him kindly based on our understanding of their feelings.
• Treat children with the same courtesy and empathy you would adults. Everyone’s feelings count!
• Volunteer – be it with a food bank, Habitat for Humanity, or even in your child’s classroom. Then explain the benefits of volunteering, both to the people receiving the help and to you as a volunteer.
• External rituals often lead to internal feelings.
• Give your child an emotional vocabulary; label feelings. A child is more likely to connect to a feeling if he has a name for it.
• Value your child’s responsiveness to others. Let her know through your words and demeanor that his attempts to feel for others make you proud.
• Help your child identify how others feel. Teach her about verbal clues. For example, say the same phrase (“What are you doing?”) but convey different meanings (such as anger, curiosity, fear, happiness). Ask your child to identify what clues her in to the meaning behind the words.
• Make it a habit to ask not only what a child did, but how he felt about it. “You scored a goal today,” can easily lead to “How did that make you feel?” From there, the conversation can move onto how the other team felt. This gives legitimacy to people’s differing emotions, even when viewing the same event.
• When reading a story, have your child speculate on how characters may feel.
• Don’t judge others. Validate feelings, even if they aren’t the same as yours.
• Refrain from gossip. You should be demonstrating concern for the feeling of others – even if they’re not within earshot (your child may be!).
Empathy may not always come easily – after all, society too often seems to celebrate selfishness and emphasize a “My, Me, Mine” attitude. But truly connecting to other human beings is a reward in itself and will benefit your child in ways that a self-serving attitude never will.
Writer Mary Dixon LeBeau will return next month to teach the next important virtue, as part of our new parenting series “Teaching the Virtues.”