The hidden secret to school success and what our 21st century kids need to thrive are the noncognitive skills, like emotional literacy, managing emotions, collaboration, joy, and empathy. Empathy, in particular, is the cornerstone for becoming a happy, well-adjusted, successful adult. The latest research shows that empathy—the ability to put oneself in other people’s shoes—is what makes our children more likable, more employable, more resilient, better leaders, more conscience-driven, and even increases their life spans. And yet, according to a 2010 University of Michigan study, teens are 40 percent less empathetic than they were three decades ago, and in the same period, narcissism has increased 58 percent. And that’s bad news for our children.
We might be producing a smart, self-assured generation of young people, but today’s kids are also the most self-centered and stressed on record.
The good news is that empathy can be nurtured, and some of the best ways to do so are spontaneous, simple, and don’t cost a dime. At the heart of this shift are parents who want their children to become caring, successful, and happy. Here are 10 simple strategies to put into practice today and to use every day.
1. Make caring routine. Try the “Two Kindness Rule.” Explain to your children that you expect them to say
or do at least two kind things every day. Then have your kids describe their kind deeds at dinner. The practice will ultimately help your children become kindhearted adults. When kindness becomes a routine part of their lives, kids will recognize that caring is expected and they will adopt the behavior.
2. Praise caring actions. When your child acts kindhearted, use a label that focuses on her caring nature. “You’re the kind of person who likes to help people.” Or, “You are a considerate and helpful person.” Children tend to act according to how we view them and how they view themselves. Your messages will help your children see themselves as caring people so they are more likely to act in caring, kind ways.
3. Talk about emotions. Kids can’t care about others if they can’t recognize feelings. So use words that describe emotions. Name how your child feels: “You seem sad.” Point out facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language: “Look at Daddy’s slumped shoulders. How does he feel?” Use books and films, too: “How does Dumbo feel when everyone teases him about his big ears?”
4. Use the news. Whether on TV, online, or in the physical paper, the news is rich with possibilities to stretch children’s empathy. For example, a story about a house fire can be a springboard. “The fire destroyed their homes. What do you think those kids are feeling and thinking?” Or “I wonder if there’s a way we can help the families and let them know we care. Can you think of any?”
5. Imagine how the person feels. Asking “How would you feel?” helps children grasp the needs and feelings of other people. If, for example, you’re asking your child to send a thank you note to his aunt for the birthday present he received, talk with him before he writes it. “Pretend you’re Aunt Jen opening your card. How will you feel when you read what it says?” Or “Imagine you’re a new neighbor, and you’re moving into this town and don’t know anyone. How would you feel? What would make you feel welcome?”
6. Model caring. Let your child see you extend kindness, like offering your seat to an elderly person, phoning your friend who is down, asking someone how she is feeling. The more kids witness or experience kindness, the more likely they will incorporate the virtue as part of their character.
7. Reflect on kindness. Instead of always asking, “What did you learn today?” or “What grade did you get?” include such questions as, “What’s something you did that was kind?” and “What kind thing did you see someone do?” The simple tweak helps kids start looking for kindness and be more likely to adopt it for themselves.
8. Capture caring moments. We’re quick to snap photos of our kids’ academic successes, athletic prowess, or cute outfits. 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—like raking leaves for Grandpa, working at a soup kitchen with your family, feeding ducks at the park, reading a book to a younger sibling, tutoring a classmate—so they recognize that caring matters.
9. Read emotionally charged books. Books can activate empathy and kindness. Find ones that help your child step into the character’s shoes and open their hearts. For primary school-age children, The Wednesday Surprise, Amos and Boris, and Enemy Pie are good books to read with them. Encourage elementary-school age kids to read Tight Times, The Hundred Dresses, and The Invisible Boy; similarly, urge tweens and teens to check out The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Book Thief, and Where the Red Fern Grows.
10. Start a giving box. Keep a box by your front (or back) door for everyone in your family to place gently used toys, clothes, or books to give to someone in need. You might even encourage guests and relatives who often visit to join in your giving routine. When the box is filled, have your kids help you take the items to a children’s ward in a hospital, a shelter, or to the fire station to be delivered to a needy family.
Just remember that the best moments to nurture empathy are usually unplanned—they just happen. Be on the lookout for and capitalize on those moments to help your child understand the power that “feeling with others” can have. That’s how we’ll raise the next generation to be good, caring, empathetic people.