Children and empathy: Moral courage

Teaching children to have moral courage can help them develop empathy.

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 moral courage

It’s important children understand empathy and know strategies to use empathy, but it’s also important they have the motivation to act on that empathy. That motivation is called moral courage.

Think of a child being bullied and teased. A morally courageous peer is one who notices the other child’s emotional state, empathizes with them and has the strength to act or intervene. Morally courageous children resist peer pressure, defend the victimized and stand up for themselves.

Developing this courage can be tough, however. Many children (and adults, too) are worried they don’t know how to help, or if they even should. Others are afraid of what their peers might think or hope someone else will act instead.

How can you help your child develop moral courage? Dr. Borba has some suggestions.

Value social responsibility. Make it a known expectation that your children be helpful and caring for others. Encourage your child to watch out for their siblings or pets or stand up for their peers. Let them know you will be there to support them.

Give them role models. Expose your child to heroes like Rosa Parks, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi or even fictional ones like Matilda who weren’t afraid to take a stand in protecting and caring for other people. Point out everyday heroes too, like the friend who shoveled an elderly neighbor’s driveway or someone who stopped on the way to work to help after a car accident.

Let your child learn to work it out. It’s tempting to swoop in and want to solve your children’s problems because we don’t want to see them unhappy or suffer. By taking a step back and allowing children to start to work through problems on their own, you’re not only helping them practice being responsible for themselves and learning how to solve problems, you are also telling them, “I trust you to be brave and to deal with this tough situation.”

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 are experience due to MSU Extension programs, read our 2015 Impact Reports: “Preparing young children to 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.

Other articles in series

Did you find this article useful?