There are so many instances that highlight the importance of empathy in child development. Remember in your parent-teacher conference when the teacher gave a heartwarming account of when your child hugged their classmate who was having a tough day and told them it would be okay? Or maybe you’ve had the opposite experience when your child got in trouble for picking on a classmate. Situations like these make us wonder if empathy is a character trait, something they are born with, or something that they learn. It can make us question our own empathy and whether or not we’re teaching (or can teach) empathy to our children.

In our own daily encounters and in the headlines, it can feel like empathy is a lost art. Were we not taught the importance of empathy? Did we just forget about it? Or is empathy something that comes innately and no matter how hard we try, there’s only so much we can muster up? In any case, here’s how you can encourage more empathy in yourself, in your children, and thus in the world.

Importance of Empathy in Child Development

Empathy is realizing that others are thinking and feeling independently of yourself. We highlight the importance of empathy in child development.

Mostly through trial and error, children start to learn that the things they say and do can impact others. Conversely, other people’s words and actions affect them. Once they understand this and their larger place in the world, they can start to see similarities in how they feel vs. how their classmates feel. This is empathy — being able to “put yourself in another’s shoes” or simply realize that others are thinking and feeling things independently of yourself. Empathy is indeed a skill, and it is important. Empathy helps children to build a sense of security and stronger relationships with their peers knowing that they are going through a shared experience. Children find comfort in knowing that they aren’t alone. For example, when they are missing their parents at school, they can see that other children have probably gone through the same thing but here they both are, comforting and cheering each other up. These benefits also highlight the importance of empathy in child development:

  • It promotes social harmony starting at a young age
  • It promotes collaboration and acceptance of others
  • It reduces the likelihood of bullying

Empathy is not limited to childhood – it also teaches us important lessons and helps us to become empathetic, successful, helpful adults. In general, empathy benefits adulthood by:

  • Building closer relationships – this can lead to more personal and professional success
  • Better problem solving skills by taking other people’s perspectives
  • Better conflict resolution skills
  • Higher levels of happiness
  • Deeper relationships and intimacy with partners and friends

So now that you understand the importance of empathy in child development, you might be wondering – where does empathy come from? And how can we get more of it?

Empathy: Innate or Learned

According to Psychology Today, empathy consists not just of unconscious emotion sharing, but conscious control to regulate the experience. Meaning, if empathy doesn’t immediately come to us, we catch ourselves and slow down to help us connect with others on a deeper level. So is it innate or learned? Well, it’s both.

Empathy is innate, but needs to be fostered throughout life. We explain the importance of empathy in child development.

On an unconscious level, it’s hard for a lot of people not to empathize, at least to some extent. We unconsciously mimic others’ facial expressions and start to take on their emotions. Specific areas of the brain begin to fire when we’re empathetic, proving that it’s not all on our own will. Perhaps the roadblock we experience is when our conscious effort for empathy is triggered and we choose to let our judgement take over and stifle empathy.

So, even though empathy is innate to us, it’s a skill that needs to be fostered throughout life. Whether we are conscious of it or not, our empathy fluctuates depending on the persona/situation because of our learned experiences. Maybe we “got burned” before by a friend and no longer empathize with people with their same personality type. But the more we turn inward and focus on developing our own emotional intelligence and awareness, the better we are at recognizing our drawbacks/misjudgements and offering more empathy to everyone we encounter.

How to Foster Empathy in Ourselves and our Children

So let’s get this show on the road. Whether you see a need for more empathy in the world, in yourself, in your children, or if you are personally in a rut and are striving for more human connection, there are things you can do to foster and encourage empathy.

For adults:

  • Talk to new people: I know this seems difficult (especially in the post-covid world) but talking to people who have different life experiences is so important. Since our social worlds have shrunk and our social media feeds are ultra curated to our comfort zones, we’re not really taking in new perspectives or exercising our empathy muscles. To talk to new people, try following people you normally wouldn’t follow on social media — people with different opinions, styles, demographics, and lifestyles.
  • Notice the details: When you are conversing with your “covid pod,” put the phones away! Even picking up on microexpressions and gestures makes conversations feel more lively and intimate.
  • Listen to others’ stories: If talking to new people one on one isn’t an option for you, listen to podcasts or watch movies that recount other people’s stories. The Moth is a live storytelling podcast that welcomes people from all walks of life, from astronauts to people who have experienced homelessness or immigrated from far and wide.
  • Walk in their shoes: Get literal. You can break out of your comfort zone and daily routine by actually living in another person’s shoes. Visit someone else’s house of worship, shop at a grocery store in another neighborhood, visit local businesses in neighboring towns, or volunteer.
  • Second guess your reactions: If someone else seems to rub you the wrong way, ask yourself why before you react. Think about their day and how they got there before interacting with you.

For children:

  • Teach them about emotions: There are plenty of books available to teach children about emotions, from the feeling itself to how they can recognize them on others’ faces and through their actions. There are also lessons to be learned every day to emphasize emotional intelligence. For instance, if they didn’t get to buy a toy when they went to the store today, tell them “I saw you were disappointed and sad today when you couldn’t buy a toy.” Or, you can highlight your emotions and explain your reactions, such as “Mommy got frustrated when the dog came in the house with muddy paws and got the couch dirty.”
  • Watch their favorite shows together: Watching TV together not only shows that you are invested in their interests and love spending time with them, it provides opportunities for you to explain the emotions of their characters. Ask questions like “How do you think Blue felt when he got lost?”
  • Lead with examples: Don’t worry, nobody expects you to remain calm, cool, and collected 24/7 but you can show them how you make amends and explain why you reacted the way you did and what you wish you did differently. Conflict resolution is a situation in which we could all use more empathy and patience and the best way is to lead by example.
  • Ask about their days at school and what happened with other children: This helps “train” children to start noticing what others are going through and when they relay it back to you, it helps them to practice their empathy.
  • Give together: Take them on volunteering opportunities with you. Explain why you are volunteering, and help them get engaged with the people around them.
  • Set aside time for reflection: Just like the above points, there are “challenges” you can do together every day as an empathy exercise – but the most important part is when they bring the lesson home and reflect on it. HAPPE’s Mission I’m Possible is a weekly challenge in which children interact with others and reflect on how it made them and the recipient feel. Challenges are fun, engaging, and wholesome and get delivered straight from HAPPE “HQ” to your phone to do challenges on the go. Children love feeling as if they are on a top-secret mission, and you’ll love seeing their emotional skills flourish in front of your eyes. These skills can be reinforced in-between and after every challenge to keep emotional development on track no matter what learning environment they’re in.

No matter who you are or where you came from, empathy is not unobtainable. It’s never too late or too early to build more empathy and compassion for others — and I bet we all agree we wished we got more in return too.