Children and empathy: Understanding the needs of others

Helping children develop perspective-taking skills 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.

Perspective taking

You know the saying about withholding judgement until you’ve walked a mile in someone else’s shoes? That is actually a process called perspective taking, or the ability to look at a situation from someone else’s perspective to try to understand their point of view. This process takes time and effort to learn, but when we become good perspective takers, we are primed to better understand and connect with others. In short, we are prepared to show empathy.

This process of perspective taking can help children (and adults) deal with conflicts in less aggressive ways, reserve judgment of other people, stand up for others and be more helpful and supportive of other people.

Empathetic people are good perspective takers. So, how can we teach the skills of perspective taking? Borba has identified four steps to help children see things from someone else’s point of view.

Step 1: C = Call attention to uncaring. When you see your child do something unkind, point it out and tell them why it was unkind. The “why” step is really important here, so you can encourage your child to develop these skills of empathy.

Step 2: A = Assess how uncaring affects others. This is the most important step of perspective taking, helping your child understand how someone else experiences a situation or how they experience the direct result of your child’s actions or behaviors. For instance, “When you got angry and yelled at Lucy, what do you think she was feeling?”

Step 3: R = Repair the hurt and require reparations. Now that your child has hopefully attempted to understand the other person’s perspective, it’s important to help them work through the next step, which is thinking about what they can do to make the situation better. Younger children might need help to think of ideas, but you should encourage your child to think about how they can make reparations. Maybe they apologize, write a letter, call someone on the phone, or maybe they can do something practical like get somebody an icepack, or repair or replace something they damaged.

Step 4: E = Express disappointment and stress caring expectations. It’s appropriate to express disappointment in a behavior when your child does something unkind, and you can do so without being disappointed in your child. (Remember that a single behavior does not define an individual and a child isn’t “bad” because they did something negative.) Next, it’s important you help your child know what behaviors you value and expect from them. For example, “Teasing your cousin was unkind and it made Jamal feel bad. I know you are a kind person and I expect you to treat others with kindness.”

For more information, visit Dr. Michele 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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