Build your child’s empathy

by Kathy Kuhl         How do we help kids develop empathy? Last week’s blog on how to support friends with children with challenges got me thinking about building empathy in our children and teens.

Don’t miss the benefits of your child’s struggle

We hate to see our children suffer, but suffering often helps kids develop a tender heart toward others who hurt. I’ve often seen this in my children and in others.

When our kids struggle, their siblings also can develop compassion. I’ve met several therapists and education specialists who grew up with a brother or sister who struggled. That trouble at home–the awkward moments and hard years, the limited resources, the stress–wasn’t the smooth route we’d have picked. But it can lead a sibling into a lifetime of helping others.

Practical ways to nurture empathy at home

  • Talk about how the characters feel as you watch movies and news. Discuss it when read novels together in your homeschool. Ken Sande’s blog (see below) has some excellent movie recommendations, clips, and questions that can be used to start conversations with kids and teens.
    Note that blogger Ken Sande is a Christian, like me. But whatever you believe, there are still great stories here, giving any parent opportunities to talk about great character traits.
  • Talk with your kids about giving. We don’t want to broadcast our charity. “Don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing,” was Jesus’ classic advice. This conversation can be tricky if we have impulsive kids who may blurt out details, so tread carefully. We do want our kids to know that we give and value giving.
  • Give good stuff. Inventory the underused toys and clothes that are still in good or great shape. Talk with your children about how some kids don’t have toys, or their folks can’t afford to buy much. What a coup for those parents to find your nice toy at the thrift store!
  • If you go to a church that collects shoeboxes full of small items for a needy child overseas, take your child along to do the shopping. But first read the article below, “Unsolicited Advice about Shoeboxes” by a woman who’s been in third-world villages that receive those gifts. Her simple tips help you avoid accidentally giving presents that may be useless to the recipients.
  • Let your kids help you help others. Now before the holidays is a great time to to the soup kitchen, the nursing home, or wherever you can help. Many of these places are full of volunteers over the holidays, then empty out again. As the old saying asks, if you see nine men carrying one end of a log and one man at the other end, which end do you go to? Go to the need.
  • Keep it simple. Visiting one friend in an assisted living facility with your little ones for a few minutes can brighten the day for dozens of senior citizens.
    Kids have magic powers to generate smiles. My friend Janice Campbell shared this story of a four-year-old who made a new friend. It started when little Norah saw an elderly man at the store, she said,  “Hi old person! It’s my birfday today!” 
  • Teach your kids when we give or try to help, sometimes we will get it wrong, but that’s okay. We learn better and improve. Explain that it’s work and takes practice.
  • Ken Sande has many practical tips on raising empathetic children in his recent blog post here.

What do you do to help your children grow more empathetic? Please answer in the comments section below.


My blog on helping kids learn to read faces.

Last week’s blog on helping friends whose children face challenges.

Unsolicited Advice about Shoeboxes: those gift boxes collected by some churches and distributed overseas by Samaritan’s Purse.

The RW360 movie blog includes many films, with discussion questions. Sometimes Ken Sande includes a clip and zooms in on one scene. Here are a few my favorites:

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