"To see with the eyes of another, to hear with the ears of another and to feel with the heart of another." (Alfred Adler) is a wonderful way to describe empathy. It is a complex idea that preschoolers are not yet able to grasp, so how do parents teach their young children about empathy?
Children are great life scientists – they are constantly exploring their environments: discovering, observing and trying things. They watch and copy the behaviours of others, so if parents show empathy, young children will mimic. Everyday situations, as they arise, can be teachable moments: talking about the lost puppy and how scared/lonely he must be, about how the owner of this puppy must be worried/sad or about the homeless person they passed on the street.
Here are some ways that you can teach empathy to your preschoolers:
- Stories are a great springboard for teaching empathy. The story opens up the opportunity to discuss the point of view of the character eg. "If you were the little
boy/girl in the story how would you feel or what would you do?"
- Relate the story to the child’s real life experience. "Do you remember when this happened to you and how did you feel?"
- Perhaps it can be related to something that happened to a friend or sibling.
- Or simply identifying the character’s feelings by looking at the facial expressions and/or body language.
- Help children become aware of their own feelings: how their bodies feel (ie. where there might be tension, "I notice that you make fists when you’re mad), their facial expressions and body language. This helps then identify it in others.
- Have them care for something, like a plant or an animal.
- Have fun with it: Role-play situations or play games where they have to guess what you’re feeling.
- Respond with empathy: When children express disappointment, anger, sorrow or joy respond with empathy. "You’re really disappointed that you couldn’t go to the park today. I know that you were really looking forward to it." Or "Boy, you’re really excited about going to the birthday party!" (An empathic statement does not require a parent to do anything other than identify the feeling. Parents don’t need to "fix" it.)
Children are little sponges. They soak up everything you say and do. Everyone who is in contact with children, not just parents, has the potential to model empathy. As parents you are your children’s first teachers and your children look to you for that guidance.