Ways to Nurture Compassion in Children

“If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors.” Frederick Buechner

I don’t remember what shenanigans were going on the afternoon when my kids were small and I spoke sharply to my 2-year-old son, Alex. What I do remember is how my daughter, then 5 years old, responded. “Mommy, don’t speak to Alex that way, you’ll hurt his heart.” Though I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing, I appreciated my daughter’s concern for her younger brother’s “heart.”

According to clinical psychologist Lara Mattox, Ph.D., Kathryn’s response indicated normal emotional development for a 5-year-old.

“Empathy requires something called Theory of Mind,” Mattox said. “It is a concept that is developing in children ages 3 to 5 and entails being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”

People lacking Theory of Mind are sometimes said to have “mindblindness”—difficulty imagining that anyone else has thoughts or feelings different from their own. Individuals on the Autism Spectrum usually struggle with mindblindness (although Mattox points out that some on the spectrum actually over-identify with other’s emotions), but Mattox encourages parents to remember that there is a wide range of normal in the development of Theory of Mind.

“Even if you think your child is old enough to be empathetic, it may be in process. Also, some people are just born more empathetic than others. Fortunately,” she said, “that’s not to say that those born with less natural empathy are doomed to have less all their lives. Empathy can be taught.”

According to Nancy Eisenberg, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Arizona State University, one of the nation’s leading researchers on children’s pro-social behavior, and author of The Caring Child, the first and most important way to “teach” children empathy is to allow them to experience it firsthand.

“Adults can strengthen a child’s capacity for empathy and sympathy by being supportive and sensitive,” wrote Eisenberg in an article for The Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education. “Children are better able to attend to others’ emotional needs if their own needs are met.”

Additionally, Eisenberg points out that by meeting a child’s needs, parents are modeling behavior that children will imitate. She also advocates “supportive and sensitive” rather than “punitive” parenting and discipline.

“When parents use harsh discipline, children tend to focus on their own needs and on avoiding punishment rather than attending the needs of others,”  Eisenberg writes.

Mattox encourages parents to talk to their children about feelings and to help them identify their own feelings and the feelings of others.

“If you see somebody who looks sad, you might say, ‘Look at that man’s face. I wonder what he is feeling?’ It is important to begin to get kids to even notice others,” Mattox said. “Some kids don’t pick up on [body language] cues.”

For Melanie Heffington, mother of three little girls, an opportunity presented itself to discuss another’s emotional state, as well as share the family’s religious values, when the girls spotted a homeless man with a sign asking for money.

“The girls were filled with many questions,” Melanie said. “‘He looks dirty. Why?’ ‘He looks sad. Why?’”

After answering the girls’ questions, Melanie didn’t feel it was safe to offer the man direct assistance, but she still wanted to show her concern.

“We all said a prayer for this man that God would take care of his needs, because we didn’t really know what his needs were.”

Mattox said that by talking about emotions with children, we can begin to expand their understanding and appreciation for others.

“There’s something called attributional bias,” Mattox said. “That means if I am snippy with someone, I still believe that I am a good person, I’m just in a mad mood. But if someone I don’t know is snippy with me, I think that he or she is a bad person.”

To counter attributional bias, Mattox said it is important to help children begin to question what might be going on with a person who is behaving poorly or looks different.

“If a child comes to school with dirty clothes, children can often be mean and even bullying,” Mattox said. “Children may not have grasped the idea that maybe that child doesn’t have a washing machine in her home. Or maybe the washing machine is broken and the family doesn’t have the money to fix it. Sometimes such ideas are not in a child’s worldview. It may never have crossed their minds that a family wouldn’t have a washing machine.”

Mattox said a valuable time to teach empathy is when your child has been treated poorly by another. Instead of simply expressing anger along with your child, brainstorm reasons the child may have acted as she did. “Is it possible Jane didn’t know you are sensitive about the color of your hair? Maybe someone just teased Jane about her hair.”

Finally, Mattox encourages parents to practice active listening with their children, or as the Japanese call it, “kanji listening,” meaning listening with your eyes, ears, heart, mind and undivided attention.

“Make eye contact with your child when he is talking and give non-verbal feedback (such as nodding),” Mattox said. “And don’t feel you have to respond to everything that is said.”

Eisenberg also encourages parents to provide positive feedback when they see children responding with empathy.

“When a child helps or shares with another, the adult can say, ‘You helped because you are a generous person.’ For children about 7 years or older, such statements may foster the self-perception that they are generous and helpful, which serves to motivate future pro-social actions.”

Both Mattox and Eisenberg stress the importance of modeling empathetic behavior through volunteering and acts of kindness.

“I have tried to involve my girls in acts of kindness for those in need,” Melanie said. “They help me cook for those who are sick or have had a new baby. We also talk about how some feelings are universal and that we all feel sad, lonely, and embarrassed at some point.”

Melanie is right, of course, at some point everyone feels sad, lonely and has a “heart hurt.” But if we nurture seeds of compassion in our children, the hurting hearts in our world will also be comforted, encouraged, defended and soothed.

Books to Teach Empathy and Compassion

  • The Golden Rule, by Ilene Cooper
  • Chester Raccoon and the Big Bad Bully, by Audrey Penn
  • Simon’s Hook: A Story about Tease and Put-Downs, by Karen Gedig Burnett
  • Don’t Laugh At Me, (A Reading Rainbow book) by Steve Seskin and Allen Shamblin
  • A Life Like Mine, How Children Live Around the World (UNICEF book)
  • Whoever You Are, by Mem Fox
Categories: Parenting