Sharing toys during playtime, comforting friends when they’re upset, and making sure to include other kids in their games may seem like basic behaviors to teach your children. But these acts of kindness all have one thing in common: the powerful—and potentially world changing!—cognitive process known as empathy.
More than just sympathizing with someone’s situation, true empathy is the ability to actively put yourself in another person’s shoes and feel their emotions as if they were your own. It carries a lot of implications for our social and emotional wellbeing, but also for the current state of our world. Studies show that the more empathy medical professionals feel for their patients, the more happy and healthy their patients will be. And environmental hazards like oil spills show us just how little some people are able to empathize with the natural world and their fellow humans. As we all work to create a more loving and eco-friendly world, it’s important to start nurturing concepts of empathy in our kids as early as we can.
But while empathy might be a big deal, teaching it certainly doesn’t have to be! As humans, we all have a natural desire to help others and to understand their feelings. Through the power of social emotional learning, we can teach kids to be the healthy and empathetic individuals we all know they can be—and might just change the world along the way.
Empathy Crash Course!
Have you ever seen someone else taste something sour and instinctively screwed your face up, or broken out in a grin when you saw your friend smiling? We often end up feeling like we’re ‘reflecting’ the emotions of those around us—turns out, this line of thinking isn’t too far off! Empathy is borne out of tiny brain cells called ‘mirror neurons’, which activate an ‘echo’ of someone else’s action or emotion in our own minds. By literally making you cry when your best friend cries, mirror neurons can help us form an understanding of them as a person. But they also help to show that we’re not so different from each other. This automatic response from our brains is a certain type of empathy often called ‘Emotional Empathy’.
Awesome as this process can be, the other type of empathy is where we really get to flex our feeling muscles! Also called ‘perspective-taking’, Cognitive Empathy is what happens when we consciously make the effort to step into another person’s world. Rather than reflexively reacting to someone else, we actively identify the emotions they must be going through and to imagine a situation through their eyes. Practicing Cognitive Empathy is how we learn tolerance and acceptance toward those who might be different from us. Without it, we can miss valuable opportunities to expand our social circles and expose ourselves to different viewpoints.
Either way, watching empathy take action in the brain would probably feel like watching our own personal light show of compassion. Cognitive empathy stimulates the executive functions of the pre-frontal cortex as well as the temporal lobe, which deals with memory. Once emotional empathy comes into play, mirror neurons in the pre-frontal area start working alongside the emotion-controlled limbic system. As workout buddies for the brain go, you just can’t go wrong with a little bit of empathy!
And just to put a cherry on top, studies have been saying for years that teaching your kids this compassionate kind of mindset can be absolutely crucial for social and emotional development later in life. Children with high levels of empathy tend to have wider social circles, but more importantly, they grow to be adults skilled in positive self-esteem and establishing meaningful and long-lasting relationships.
The takeaway is, it’s never too early to start your little ones on empathy. Introducing this amazing frame of mind to your little ones won’t just be great for getting them to hold the door for someone else or share their favorite stuffed animal with their sibling. It’s also fantastic for helping them blossom into happier, healthier individuals ready to share this newfound gift with the world and within themselves.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” -- Maya Angelou
As we find ourselves muddling through this uncertain point in the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clear that empathy is needed now more than ever. After almost two and a half years of heightened stress and feelings of isolation, empathy superheroes are essential as we do our best to rebuild communities—old and new—in tight-knit and eco-friendly ways.
To help children truly understand the beautifully diverse world we leave in, it’s important to always encourage conversations and devote time to the multitudes of questions they likely have: Why does this person look different from me? Why do my friend’s parents do this when we don’t? Opening up the world to your young ones can be as easy as reading storybooks full of tales from around the globe, or even whipping up a meal from another cuisine for dinner.
By learning to see the common grounds that we all share as human beings, kids will find it easier to form bonds with others around them—and most importantly, to spread their empathy superpowers with the rest of the world!
Let's Get Down to Business
Before we let you and your kids embark on your new empathy odyssey, our experts would like to share a few useful tips. What are the best ways you can use SEL approaches to foster empathy in your little ones? How can we make sure to nourish this empathy throughout all the stages of early childhood development? Luckily for us, empathy in children is an extensively researched subject in STEM fields—enough so that we at MEandMine were able to sketch up some hands-on, science-backed courses of action.
TIP #1: 6 Children’s Books to Read
Books provide a great beginning platform for kids to learn what empathy and kindness mean. There are countless children’s books that offer beautiful lessons about friendship, acceptance, kindness, and compassion. Here are the top 6 picks from our psychologist team!
Hey, Little Ant This book is an absolute winner for fostering discussions around compassion and understanding. When a boy comes across an ant on the sidewalk and lifts his shoe to squish it, the ant quickly speaks up to make the case for why his life should be spared. The ant pleads for the boy to imagine how he’d feel if they switched positions. Their humorous dialogue shows a great contrast in how each sees the world.
The Invisible Boy Meet Brian, the invisible boy. Nobody ever seems to notice him. When Justin, the new boy, arrives, Brian is the first to make him feel welcome. This gentle story shows how small acts of kindness can help children feel included and allow them to flourish.
Little Blue Truck Beep! Beep! Beep! Meet Blue. A muddy country road is no match for this little pick up–that is until he gets stuck while pushing a dump truck out of the muck. Luckily, Blue has made a pack of farm animal friends along his route. And they’re willing to do whatever it takes to get their pal back on the road. Enjoy a rollicking homage to the power of friendship and the rewards of helping others.
Be Kind When Tanisha spills grape juice all over her new dress, her classmate wants to make her feel better, wondering: What does it mean to be kind? From asking the new girl to play to standing up for someone being bullied, this moving story explores what kindness is, and how any act, big or small, can make a difference―or at least help a friend.
The Rabbit Listened Taylor is devastated when the block tower he worked so hard to build is knocked down by a flock of birds. A parade of animals tries to help — suggesting Taylor laugh about it or scream in anger — but they all walk away once he discards their advice. Only the rabbit stays. By simply being present, the rabbit demonstrates empathy and support, and teaches kids that listening is the first step to understanding.
Come with Me It’s about a little girl who asks her dad what she can do to make the world a better place. Inspired by his daughter’s question, the dad takes her on a walk through the city, greeting everyone he sees with a kind smile and a tip of his hat. The girl is inspired by her parents’ gentle regard for the world and invites the boy next door to come outside and walk the dog with her. This book communicates that small acts of kindness and bravery are what ultimately make the world a better place.
TIP #2: Be Kind to Our Minds
“How you love yourself is how you teach others to love you.” Rupi Kaur. Part of teaching your kids empathy is taking the time to “model” empathetic words and behaviors in front of them. When our little ones see the kindness we show to the people around us, they will pick up the pattern and want to follow suit. But a vital aspect of empathy we should be demonstrating is showing this same compassion toward someone just as deserving of it: ourselves.
When we are understanding of our own struggles, it allows us to be more forgiving of others and to just be kinder, happier individuals in the long run. Before you beat yourself up about a small mistake, next time take a deep breath and hold back the usual tide of self-shame. Accidents happen! You did your best, and that’s okay! Your child will notice your gentle self-treatment and start to apply it to themselves, adding another skill set to their social-emotional toolbox.
This deck of 45 different ‘empowerment cards’ is designed to get kids moving, in body and spirit!
TIP #3: Develop Empathy Through Play
Approaching these kinds of topics with your kids can be rewarding, but also pretty tough. Parents can navigate this challenge in play-based games! Preschoolers will flourish in their SEL journeys and in their ability to recognize emotions in others around them.
MEandMine Aha! Empathy play kit can effectively foster children’s empathy in action. The kit contains an ocean pollution storybook, a variety of ‘ocean cleanup’ activities, and even an ‘oil spill’ experiment where the kids can pour sticky gunk into a container with a paper puffin to see the firsthand effects these disasters can have on our sea friends.
This interactive kit—made partly from recycled materials—poses hours of endless fun to the average preschooler. But it also acts as an entertaining and easy crash course in basic empathy. By showing kids the existence of these issues but also how they can be addressed, the kit inspires empathy while also building valuable problem-solving skills.
Mini ‘Bella Rose’ doll is great for any child who shows difficulty expressing themselves. She comes with a “Sensitive” plush emotion that can be tucked in her pocket to communicate how her owner is feeling, helping kids to show their feelings and to identify them in others.
Empathy is a tricky subject to figure out, for kids and parents alike. But it’s when we work with our kids to spread it to every corner of our communities that we realize just how much we all need it. Through social-emotional learning and play-based methods, any developing child can be watered with the magic of empathy. Now, just step back and watch them grow
Harvard Caring Common