Children and empathy: Developing an ethical code

Helping children develop an ethical code helps them develop empathy.

In the book “Unselfie: Why empathetic kids succeed in our All-About-Me World,” educational psychologist Michele Borba talks about the importance of empathy, why children are having a harder time developing it and how to help children learn empathy to succeed.

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone’s shoes and understand what they are going through; it’s the ability to feel what they are feeling. Why is empathy so important? With ongoing societal issues like bullying, youth mental health concerns, teaching empathy to children is more important than ever.

Empathetic people have the ability to connect with others on a deeper level and can lead to individuals being helpful, involved and invested in other people. In our social society where we have to rely on each other, empathy is an increasingly important tool to connect with the world.

Moral identity

Everyone develops their own ethical code, a set of beliefs and values that guide them in their thoughts and actions. This moral identity plays a big part in developing empathy. In order for children to act in empathetic ways, they first have to believe in the value of empathy and understand, appreciate and strive towards empathetic values.

In our efforts to show children we are proud and supportive of them, Borba points out that we often focus on their “cognitive, social and physical feats,” and less on their moral accomplishments, like showing kindness, compassion, understanding and thoughtfulness. Children need to see themselves as capable of empathy, and we need to help them see it.

Developing a moral identity

Borba has identified several ways to help children develop a strong moral identity.

Check your praise. In our efforts to help children develop self-esteem and feel good about themselves, sometimes we are guilty of overdoing the praise. Pay attention to your child’s reaction when you offer them praise and try to determine if you are overpraising your child. If your child highlights their own accomplishments and forgets other peoples’ contributions, constantly expect you to praise them (“Tell me I did a good job, Daddy”) or constantly need your approval, these may be signs you are over-praising.

Praise your child for “being.” Instead of generalized or empty praise, give your child praise that directly relates back to their character. “You are so thoughtful Gretchen, you noticed that your brother was struggling with his shoelaces so you offered to help him,” or “One of my favorite things about you is that you are always so considerate of other people’s feelings, you are a great friend.”

Find a “helper.” Even something as simple as changing the language you are using can help change your child’s behavior. Studies have shown that using the noun “helper” instead of the verb “helping” can increase the likelihood that children participate in helpful, empathetic behaviors. Instead of asking your child to help sweep the kitchen, say you are looking for just the right helper who can get the job done.

Walk the walk yourself. Children learn from watching you. If you want your child to show empathetic behaviors, show them in your own life. Your behavior sets the tone for your child, so show them you value kindness, generosity, thoughtfulness and understanding. You don’t need to lecture them or even explain it, just show them with your actions that you value empathy.

For more information, visit Dr. Borba's website. For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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