When I’m out in public with my kids and I hear another kid crying or throwing a temper tantrum, I’m not proud of the first thought that crosses my mind.
In the first second after hearing it, my shoulders tense up. I hold my breath. I freeze in the middle of the grocery store aisle, my hands tight on the shopping cart.
Then my mind catches up to the fact that the racket is coming from someone else’s kid, and the relief washes over me. I can breathe, I keep pushing the cart, and I think…
Thank goodness it’s not mine.
I wish my first instinct were to feel empathy for my fellow parent. To flash her the District 12 three-finger salute as a sign of solidarity. But it takes me a few seconds to get there. By the time I do, the moment has passed. We’ve moved to another aisle of the store, or the parent has whisked the kid outside away from prying strangers’ eyes.
Here’s the Problem
I don’t want my kids to grow up to be the kind of people who keep their heads down and ignore others who are in need. If they’re walking down the street and someone yells for help, I want my grown kids to be the type of people who call 911. I want my kids to know that when you’re driving and you see an accident happen, you stop and help – not because it’s the law but because it’s the right thing to do.
One of my top goals as a parent is to help build the empathy muscle in my kids, but my default reaction in those moments isn’t setting a good example.
Some people may tell you that kids aren’t even capable of feeling empathy until the age of six or seven. But it’s not that simple. Kids start developing empathy skills even during infancy, so it’s definitely something you can nurture as a parent.
When my oldest was a toddler, I came across an article about how to develop empathy in kids. That was years ago, so I’ve since lost track of the article. But my top take-away was one deceptively simple tip. The tip is actually the basis of a growing classroom effort designed to nurture empathy in kids. And that one tip completely changed how I react in those moments when someone else’s kid is freaking out.
3 Simple But Powerful Steps for Teaching Empathy
When you’re out and about with your child and you hear another child who’s upset, this is what you do:
- Point out what’s happening. For example, “That kid is crying.”
- Ask your child about it: “How do you think that kid feels right now?” If your child shrugs and can’t think of an emotion, try giving a couple options to choose from, like “Do you think he feels sad or angry?”
- Brainstorm what might help the other child: “What would help that kid feel better?” Wait a few more seconds than you think you should to give your kiddo a chance to think. But if she can’t think of anything, you could try asking: “What helps you feel better when you feel like that?”
We do this every single time we encounter an upset child when we’re out in public. We do it when we’re watching something on TV where a child is upset. We even do it when we’re reading a book together and a child in the story is sad or crying.
Then last weekend, something opened my eyes to how this approach to teaching empathy has impacted my kids.
Does It Work?
We’d just gotten home from running errands, and my eight-month-old Charlotte was overdue for a nap. Translation: Crying, and lots of it.
My toddler Bailey trailed me as I walked into the bedroom to get little Charlie ready for sleep. I had to change her diaper, and Charlie was not a fan of the extra step.
Over my shoulder, Bailey said, “Mama, Charlie’s crying.”
“Mmm, hmm,” I said, trying to break the world record for fastest diaper change as Charlie’s cries went up an octave.
“I think Charlie feels sad.”
I stopped and turned to look at Bailey. The corners of her little mouth pointed down. I smiled, thankful for the seed of empathy sprouting right before my eyes. “Yes, she does feel sad. She’s really tired right now.”
Then I went back to buttoning up Charlie’s onesie, popped her paci back in her mouth, and scooped her up.
“Can I give Charlie a hug to help her feel better?”
I turned back to Bailey again with another smile and blinked to clear my eyes. “Of course you can, sweet girl.”
Related: The Secret to Raising Your Kids to Be Kind (Printable)
Here’s the Best Part
Don’t just take my word for it. That classroom program for teaching empathy that I mentioned earlier? They actually bring babies into the classroom and follow this process to get the school-aged kids thinking about the baby’s feelings. Research on that program shows that using another child’s distress as a tool for developing empathy boosts children’s empathy skills, increases cooperation, and reduces bullying. The children who go through this program for building empathy even experience improved academic outcomes.
So the next time you’re out with your kids and you hear a tantrum in progress, try these three simple steps to build your child’s empathy muscle.
And don’t forget to flash that District 12 sign before it’s too late.
Before you go, get my FREE cheat sheet: 75 Positive Phrases Every Child Needs to Hear
If you liked this tip, you’ll probably like this, too: The Secret to Raising Your Kids to Be Kind. (Don’t forget to grab the free printable cards while you’re there!)
Have you tried this approach to teaching empathy? Share in a comment below!