Teaching Children Empathy

In my previous post, I outlined Ashoka’s new Empathy Initiative for Social Entrepreneurs and the importance of teaching empathy to children.

How do we help children learn the valuable skill of empathy?

1. Model Empathy

The most powerful learning tool for children is modelling these behaviours they see their parents doing. The more we model empathy and are aware of the needs of others, the more likely our children will exhibit similar behaviours. Likewise, we need to be empathetic towards our children and they will see this an model it in their relationships.

2. Treat Others as We Would Want to Be Treated

Teach your children “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Ask them “How would you like to be treated in that situation?”. Likewise,  when we say or do things with our child, would we want anyone to say or do things to us in the same way? I remember seeing a child spill her drink when we were out one night, the father responded with smacking the chilld and yelled, “What’s the matter with you? Why can’t you be more careful? I can’t take you anywhere”. I wondered how that father would have felt if he had spilled something, and someone had slapped his hand and yelled at him. If we want our children to treat others with empathy, we need to treat them with empathy!

3. Developing Empathy Through Service

Children can understand the depth of suffering, when they are helping someone who is suffering. Last year, when a family member who lived with us, was in the final stages of cancer, I included the children in little ways with her care. They also watched the way I cared for her too. This produced in them a much greater level of empathy for her suffering.

Include your children when you are volunteering to help others, do things as a family. Sponsor a child or get them involved in things you are doing to make a difference. Watch documentaries about the lives of other people less fortunate and if you get the opportunity, take them to other countries to see how other people live. They will learn to be more socially responsible and put themselves in the shoes of others.

4. Understand Feelings

One of the first steps in teaching children empathy is to help them learn about and understand emotions in general. Young children can feel all the emotions that adults feel but they lack the experience needed to identify, label and appropriately manage these feelings. As you coach your children over time, they will better understand how their actions affect others and what to do with their feelings.


Empathy is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children, because it helps them see the world through the eyes of someone else. It installs in them compassion and as  parents we help our children develop these qualities, our children will grow in their capacity to express the full range of empathetic skills. From accurately perceiving another person’s feelings to communicating this understanding to acting in ways that support, comfort and help others.

They may even grow up to be social entrepreneurs…identifying major social issues and finding ways to bring change!


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