Perhaps one of the most important lessons we can teach our children is the art of having empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It’s getting down to their level without patronizing, judging or feeling sorry for them. We are our children’s first teachers and they look up to us more than we know. It’s our responsibility to teach our children empathy through our actions, words and the way we treat others.
Here are six ways to create empathy in your home, mama:
1. Practice active listening.
Busy schedules and that never-ending to-do list can prevent you from being totally present with your child. Set up times to check in with your little one throughout the day. Cultivate active listening by putting away distractions and practice rephrasing what your child says so they know you are listening.
For example, if your child just had a fight with a close friend, you might say, “I hear that you are feeling frustrated and sad. I hear that your friend didn’t play with you at school today. How can I support you with this?”
Remember that your child doesn’t always need a solution—just your open heart and a listening ear. As they talk through difficult situations and feelings, they may come up with a solution themselves!
2. Validate their feelings.
You’ve probably heard adults say to children, “Enjoy life now because once you’re an adult…” Comments like that undermine your child’s feelings. Their feelings matter and they are not less than yours just because you have more responsibilities.
When your child starts crying because they don’t want to share their toys, their hamster dies, or a toy breaks, support your child by validating their feelings. You can connect with your child by using simple phrases like, “I can see you are having some big feelings” or, “It’s okay to cry. I know how much you loved your special toy.”
3. Start with yourself and model kindness.
The seemingly inconsequential interactions we have with our children are important. Kids will remember them. Think back to your childhood and how your parents, caregivers and family members interacted with you. Can you remember a certain tone, look, or words that hurt you?
Pay attention to how you interact with your child. Remind yourself that you can choose to respond to your child with love, kindness, and open-heartedness. When you snap at your child, or react in a way that you regret, remember to be compassionate with yourself. Always admit your mistakes and apologize.
4. Identify kindness when you see it.
The world is your classroom. When you see people doing the right thing—being kind, empathetic, or just good-hearted individuals—point it out. When your child cleans up their toys, helps set the table, or takes turns with a friend, remember to let them know that you are proud of them!
It’s also important to support your child in understanding kindness by discussing what kindness looks, sounds, and feels like. First, ask your child to brainstorm words you can say to others that are kind. Next, think about actions you see in your home and community that are kind. These might be simple acts like opening the door for someone, offering to help an elderly person carry their groceries to the car, or donating toys to your local thrift store.
Encourage your child to think about how these words and actions make them feel. Do they feel connected? Proud? Like their actions matter? Discussing what kindness is (and isn’t) will help your child (and the rest of your family) build their kindness muscles.
5. Avoid saying people are “good” or “bad.”
When we label typical child-like behaviors “good,” our children may avoid expressing their other feeling in the future. Try using language like, “Oh, wow, it looks like you are enjoying what you are doing,” or, “You are so intelligent, look how you figured that out!”
If your child is expressing challenging behaviors, you may say, “I see that you are feeling upset right now. Is there something I can do to help?” or “Are you sad? Do you need some time alone or a hug?”
6. Embrace differences.
Show your child that differences should be embraced and celebrated by reading children’s books that display inclusion with their illustrations, words and narratives. Purchase books written by indigenous authors and people of color. Follow disabled, autistic and LGBT authors. The point is to show your child that they can connect with different kinds of people when they show up, practice active listening and value everyone’s perspective.