Children and empathy: Kindness

Teaching children to value and demonstrate kindness can help with the development of empathy.

Encouraging children to be kind has much more impact than just being helpful.
Encouraging children to be kind has much more impact than just being helpful.

In the book “Unselfie: Why empathetic kids succeed in our All-About-Me World,” educational psychologist Dr. 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 and 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.

Empathy and kindness

You might have spent your childhood listening to a parent or other adult in your life remind you to mind your manners and speak kindly. Kindness plays an important part in showing empathy. When we are kind, we are engaging in that “tuning in phase” where we can pay attention and try to understand someone else’s experience or emotions. When we notice and understand, we are compelled to act, and that act often takes the form of kindness.

Encouraging children to be kind has much more impact than just being helpful; research shows that kindness can have positive effects on health, self-esteem and even happiness. Borba suggests ways to help teach your child learn kindness:

Show kindness. Make sure to find plenty of opportunities for your children to see you being kind. Help a neighbor, volunteer in your child’s classroom or simply show kindness to your family in your own home; just make sure that your children can see.

Expect and value it. Explain your beliefs and expectations to your child regarding kindness. When your child is unkind to others, you can say, “I expect that you will be kind to others. Unkind behaviors are not ok.” Once you have made clear your expectations of kindness, it’s important that you continue to show your child that you truly value kindness. Notice when someone else is kind and point it out, especially when your child is being kind.

Explain it. By helping your child understand the who’s, what’s, where’s and why’s of kindness, you can help prepare them to be ready to show it. Dr. Borba recommends explaining who received a kindness, identifying what the act of kindness was and pointing out how that kindness had an impact. For example, you can say, “Your Aunt Caty was so thankful when you helped her bake cookies for the bake sale. By spending some of your time helping her, you made the job go faster and easier, which made Aunt Caty feel really good.”

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.

To learn about the positive impact children and families experience due to MSU Extension programs, read our 2015 Impact Reports: “Preparing young children for success” and "Preparing the future generation for success.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2015, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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