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Journal Kids

let’s discuss: teaching empathy to kids…

Oh Joy / Photo by Bonnie Tsang

Oh Joy / Photo by Bonnie Tsang

For the last couple weeks, we've discussed some things that were fun to talk about and get various perspectives. They were light and sometimes silly, but today's post is about to get a little more serious…

This last week of events has really taken a toll on my mental psyche. I am still angry and processing that racism is still very much present in 2017. I know there is so much I can't control about what other people think or do or where they live and what they have been taught and what they think deep down inside them is right (when it's not). What I do know (and the only thing that has really helped me this week) is I have an even bigger desire within me to make sure that as parents of children who will be part of this next generation, that I teach them empathy. I don't think it's something that we constantly (normally) have to think about. We don't often think about having to teach empathy to our children because we hope they will develop it. We expect they will know what's right and what's not. But now, more than ever, I needed to use this moment in time as an opportunity to teach my kids about helping others when they need it, how we are all different, and how they can learn to be good people. We have to actively teach children this trait as it doesn't come as naturally as we would all hope.

One thing to be aware of in this discussion is the difference between sympathy vs. empathy. Both are good traits to have, but here's the difference (from the dictionary):

Sympathy is largely used to convey commiseration, pity, or feelings of sorrow for someone who is experiencing misfortune. This prevailing sense is epitomized in the category of greeting card most often labeled “sympathy” that specializes in messages of support and sorrow for those in a time of need.

Empathy is most often used to refer to the capacity or ability to imagine oneself in the situation of another, thereby vicariously experiencing the emotions, ideas, or opinions of that person.

Empathy is the harder of the two to teach when you may not be in the same situation as others. This can be a really tricky thing to convey especially if you have young kids. So, I made my best attempt yesterday on the ride home with my 5.5 year old. I gave her a hypothetical situation of her seeing that another kid (maybe someone she didn't even know) who was being made fun of by another kid. I made sure she knew that in this pretend story—neither of those other kids were her friends—because it's easier to defend your friend. It's much harder to empathize, defend and help someone you don't know. I told her that one kid was being mean to the other kid and asked what she would do. She told different things she would say or do, and we discussed it. I reminded her to keep imagining what she would feel like if she was the one being picked on and how she would want someone to stand up for her. I have no idea if that conversation sunk in, but it was a start.

Also, I'm a big believer that kids learn from what they see. If you want your kids to be kind to others, make sure they see you doing the same. Bring them with you when you are bringing soup to a friend who has the flu, or verbally express your feelings when seeing a car accident on the road and your hopeful prayers for everyone's safety.

If you have kids of your own or kids in your life, please make that start in teaching them about these parts of life. It's so important now more than ever. And if you have had experience with other techniques or methods for teaching empathy, please share, as I would love to know any and all ways that we can help make the future better, braver, and kinder.

{Photo by Bonnie Tsang}


  1. You summed up the situation perfectly – I feel helpless but also know I can help set up a better future with my kids. I consider myself an empathetic person but then I catch myself doing things like getting excited with my 3 year old because we see an ambulance. I’m trying to take even those small moments to talk about how the person IN the ambulance feels! I have to be intentional but I think the payoff will be so worth it!

  2. Thank you Joy for not remaining silent and using your platform to influence others. I couldn’t agree more. What children learn during their childhood is the foundation for their future character. I see it all the time with certain peers of mine who are eriely similar to the way their parents think. Empathy is so important yet so undervalued. Thanks Joy for this as I know you don’t usually talk about politics or topics like this. ❤️

  3. What you have put into words is how I have been feeling lately. My girls are roughly the same age as yours and we often have conversations about how we can show love to others. It’s more than just going to church or teaching them the golden rule. We do those things, but we live in an area (southern WV) where there isn’t a lot of diversity, and so I feel so strongly that it is my job at home to teach them to be kind and to love others no matter what color, religion or culture they are. I personally am a Christian, and for our family, the more we pray for others, the more we are filled with love for them ❤️

  4. Thanks for your transparency and sharing your heart, Joy! I believe as parents we are responsible for shepherding/shaping our children’s heart and, as you mentioned, setting the example for them. One of the things we’ve done is identify our core values as a family so it makes it clear for our sons in how we are to live and treat one another as well as those around us.
    Love and accept one another, pray for one another, tell the truth to each other, be kind to one another, bring joy to each other, serve one another, be patient with each other, comfort one another, forgive one another, be generous with each other and last but certainly not least is to honor each other.
    We are focusing on what it means to honor one another right now. I think that when we honor each other then we see that each person has value, and we are better able and more inclined to empathize with others.

  5. I completely agree. My main goal as a parent is to raise empathetic kids…and I think the current state of the world makes it even more important. So many problems could be alleviated if people could see those they disagree with not as opponents, but as people. I talk about it a lot with my 4 year old. There is a good Daniel Tiger episode about empathy with a song reminding kids to “think about how someone else is feeling.” I sing the song all the time…hopefully it all sinks in!

  6. Thank Joy! I’m also very set on getting my (also) 5 1/2 year old books on compassion, kindness, acceptance, etc. Todd Parr is a great author with some books covering these topics in a cute, easy-to-understand way.

  7. Thanks, Joy. I just had a conversation about sympathy vs empathy with my twelve year old early this month. I realized how important it is to explain the difference. As parents, I think it is important to continue talking about this “hard” subjects throughout our kids childhood, and allow the conversation to evolve as they grow. I hope my kids learn from my examples, but I also know that I must outright teach them what it means to be decent humans. And making them aware that our experience is not going to be the experience of others. But to be aware of the situations all people must endure during their lives. Anyway, thank you, as always. xx

  8. Thank you for continuing to NOT ignore the outside world as many blogs do. I find that I’m still processing everything happening so I’m not in a place where I can be fair and articulate when talking to my young kids (8,6,4) about what is happening right now and how it may or may not impact them. And so for now I’m not saying much about current events. What I do feel is scared and profoundly disappointed. I am brown. My babies are brown. I grew up in a small town feeling pretty different and sort of prayed for the day I could get out. I never thought in my wildest dreams my kids may feel the same way I did growing up (we live in Austin, Tx). I had big dreams that diversity would be celebrated not something to be scared of. I feel a lot of despair and anguish at the present time. We do all we can to lead by example – be authentic, kind, charitable, open. And we “expose” them to diversity which in Austin actually means you drive in your car to sometimes find it. When we went back to Philly over the summer to visit our old stomping grounds where my husband did his residency (and undergrad) and I went to graduate school and worked for many years I felt like weeping. Diversity was all around us, we didn’t have go searching for it. And there was so much happening around us that the kids just leaped in and learned through doing and a absorbing. I digress. But it was beautiful and well, normal. We will keep marching forward being who we are and after I pull myself up off the ground I would like to regain some of that hopefullness I felt walking the streets of Philly a few months ago.

  9. Dear Joy, the thing is empathy is actually innate. It’s a feeling whereas sympathy is an emotion so sadly, you can’t actually TEACH empathy but you can SHOW ways to express it and to tap into it. We forget in this modern day world to consider how something might be from someone else’s pointn of view because it’s a very me, me, me world now. Children think everything they do must be put on social media in fact some of my friends children do things and then ASK if mommy is going to put it on Instagram or facebook. This is what has encouraged the ME ME ME phenomenon.
    It’s sad but parents have raised their childrenm with a camera stuck in their faces for every little thing, potty training, crying over something, dressing up, eating, NOTHING goes un published, so why WOULD children today have empathy? As parents, we can only teach so many things, the wonderful thing is that unless you are a psychopath, 🙂 , your children will HAVE empathy. So what we do as parents is to encourage our children to tap into that part of themselves, to exercise it and to find it in themselves rather than feel we are TEACHING them to have empathy. Lu xxx

  10. I think it helps to get out of our comfort zones with our kids on a regular basis to make empathy a personal thing. You can’t normalIze “difference” with kids if you never interact with it with them. We have a severely difugured man at or church who was burned badly and my six year old and I have talked about how he looks. We’ve talked about his stubby hands and feet and his big lips and his discolored skin. We talk about his appearance openly at home to diffuse the fear. Then we talk about who he is and what he likes to do. This helped my 6 year old have a conversation with him the other day.
    We try to go up to people with seeing eye dogs or those with things that aren’t “normal” and talk directly with them about this things. People actually love this. When you can promote understanding with kids instead of perpetuating fear, you are giving them a new set of eyes to see the world and the beauty in it.

  11. Thank you for commenting on this issue. It’s too big to ignore just because it conjures up bad feelings. There’s too much in my head to write anything coherent…but thank you.

  12. So true – kids will learn empathy from those around them. I feel it’s not just kids but even grown ups – human beings in general have a tendency to do what they see others doing around them. It’s so lovely to see you talk openly about this & encourage others to as well. Positive conversations like this are needed – all over the world – at this time.
    – Sneha

  13. I think this is a wonderful post and a great way to look at this problem of the world our kids are growing up in (not that I see it as a problem overall, but there are undoubtedly serious challenges ahead). I was having almost exactly this conversation with my eldest today, over a real life scenario. He was talking about one school friend who (because of a past incident) had started being mean to another one. I asked him what he did when that happened and I was really proud of his response. He said that he told his school friend that was being mean, that he didn’t have to like the other guy, but that constantly picking on him was not the way to go about it and he should really leave him alone.
    I love that he stood up for his other friend, but I also love that he was able to do this without branding the other friend as mean, but rather appealing to the better side of him. I think true empathy really is about this ability to sit in anybody’s shoes, even the people acting wrong, and find that common ground and that strand of humanity that allows us to connect and rise above perceived differences. I watched a video clip doing the rounds lately about an African American man who has made a habit of befriending members of the KKK. My knee-jerk response is ‘how could he stand them?’ and of course he’s been branded an Uncle Tom etc.
    But what he’s showing is true empathy, taking the time to get to know them as individuals and in turn, as more of them get to know him, several are actually abandoning their racist views. It’s truly powerful. I can’t pretend I’m there yet, not even close, but this is really the type of empathy I’d aspire to and would love to pass on to my kids. We can definitely start small though, just with the basics of ‘how would you feel’. Most of us are wired to be empathetic creatures, but it does take positive nurture and encouragement and example to help this quality flourish. Thanks for this great post and apologies for what turned into a book-length comment! x

  14. I couldn’t be more agree with you. I live and work in a country where diversity is something that we see everyday, but it’s surprising me, even so, all the racism and sexism behavior is still accepted, and treated just like something normal. And I think that’s the problem. Because no one talk about it or correct the wrong actions, so the younger generation who watch it think that is acceptable. You’re so right – to start it from our family first, our kids and ourselves too.

  15. I love your fresh perspective on this. I can’t begin to describe how angry I am that people have to experience this hurt on account of their race or religion. I have experienced plenty of racism being Asian, but I currently feel thankful enough that I can help without my safety really being threatened as much as other targeted minorities.
    I love how you asked Ruby how she would feel even if she didn’t KNOW the people getting hurt. I love you remind us to lead by example for the younger people in our lives, with something as simple as expressing sadness in regards to a stranger’s misfortune. It makes me so sad when people are apathetic because they’re not the ones being targeted so they think it doesn’t affect them.

  16. I’m a teacher of young children, and empathy is part of my daily life! What I’ve really learned is that the absolute most important thing is for the adult to model showing empathy. When you see a student feeling any type of way (positive/negative) I always express empathy. “You’re so excited about this new marker!” or “Marco is missing his mom this morning and feeling pretty sad about it.” Rather than intense conversations with kids about the nature of empathy, this kind of behavior helps them recognize others’ emotions. When I mention that Marco is feeling sad, another child frequently comes over and offers a hug or ask him to play.

  17. Thank you for this. My boys are 20 and 17, I have seen first hand how teaching empathy stays with them as they grow. It is heartwarming….they need to work on their patience for others ‘to grow’. They converse about how kids whom they have met and are their age are immature and too often do not see ‘the big picture’. So they have learned empathy. They need to work on being patient with others who aren’t as ahead mentally/spiritually/physically as they are.
    My daughter is 7, and she is ‘a nurturer’, so it hasn’t been hard for her to learn empathy. I do have the talks with her if she were to encounter this type of ‘meanness’ and what she could do. I tell her, not everyone wants a hug, but sometimes that is all they need. To be hugged is to feel valued and that you are cared about. We don’t have a clue as to what/how people suffer, but we still need to …..go to school, go to work, etc. Adults need to practice this better too. Too often I see people who ‘don’t practice what they preach’. We ALL can do better & we MUST. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  18. Honestly I’ve been so distressed by world events and what’s happening right now that it has affected my work, interest and desire to post online, sometimes I just don’t know what to say… I’ve found the internet exhausting lately and have been taking a break from it, but I saw you had written about this and came to read this post specifically!
    For Teddy, we often use analogies or stories to approach short discussions on caring for others – Teddy is aware of two charities, the food bank and the SPCA (helping animals) … he saw the short film for The Little Match Girl as part of a compilation of Disney cartoons, and that really had an effect on him, and I often cite The Little Match Girl when talking about someone who doesn’t have what he has – a loving family, a home, food on the table … he says “why don’t we ask the little match girl to live with us!” … For his 5th birthday we did a “toonie party” (toonies are two dollar coins in Canada…) where each party guest brings $4, $2 goes to the birthday boy towards one special gift and the other $2 goes to a charity of his choice. So he gave his donation toonies to the SPCA for the animals … we also did a lemonade stand this summer with all proceeds going to the SPCA. Small gestures like this I believe have helped him with his understanding of empathy – I feel it is often a lifelong process of learning, from experience and observation, and encouragement from family, teachers, peers – and yes, showing empathy as parents and leading by example, as you noted!
    Thanks Joy for this important post. I love the personal/difficult topic posts amongst the creativity and bright colours and happiness… xo


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