Being able to put oneself in another’s place, to feel what
he feels and to understand what he understands is an attribute
necessary for the survival of the human race. Its development is
so important that it cannot be left to chance. It has to be
consciously modeled and taught. Empathetic adults produce
Parents can help their child to develop this trait by
first providing opportunities for him to understand and to
practice using the words which express feelings. Words like
angry, happy, sad can be displayed on the refrigerator door
with the appropriate pictures beside them. The child can help
pick out these pictures which express emotion from magazines or
he can draw them himself.
Once the concrete-thinking child understands what the words
mean, parents can begin to use them in order to help the child to
understand how his actions affect others. “When you hit your
brother, he gets upset and crys because it hurts.” “Taking your
friend’s toy without asking makes him feel sad.” “I feel happy
because you helped me by picking up your toys.”
These concepts can be reinforced through stories in books
and on television. As you read the story, ask your child how he
thinks the character in the story feels and why. If he says
the character is sad, ask your child what he would do to make him
happy. If one of the characters is mean, ask what he could do to
help the mean child not feel so bad. Ask how he would feel if
somebody did that to him. Use the breaks provided by commercials
to ask the same questions regarding the TV program you are
watching. Using TV this way, makes it an active and not a
If possible, it helps to have a family pet like a cat or dog
that the child can relate to and perhaps be responsible for. A
pet responds to kindness with affection. A mistreated animal, on
the other hand, responds by becoming withdrawn or by being
aggressive. These responses give children concrete, almost
instantaneous feedback, that all actions, both positive and
negative have consequences.
Cruelty to animals, especially in young children, needs to
be given immediate, serious attention. These are the children
who are on their way to becoming bullies and murderers. They
either do not understand that the animal is suffering or they do
understand and that gives them pleasure. These are the children
who have been abused themselves or have never been given the
opportunity to experience empathy in their own lives.
On the other hand, it tells you a great deal about a person
when he is kind to an animal. Movies use this fact to develop a
character’s personality quickly. If they want the macho man to
have tender side, they show him taking care of his cat.
Schools can help children by providing opportunities for
them not only to experience empathy but to practice it. This can
be done through cooperative learning lessons, school counsels,
older children reading to younger ones, food and clothing drives,
visiting nursing homes, and so on.
Parents can tell their own stories about how somebody helped
them that day or how they helped or understood somebody else.
Children should be noticed and encouraged everytime they give the
empathetic response rather than the negative, mean one. They
should be encouraged to tell how it makes them feel when they
respond positively to another.
It is never too early to begin to develop empathy in
children. Professor Alan Leslie of Rutgers University, in
studying the development of perception in infants and young
children, found that what can be observed developing in infants,
becomes a recognizable trait by three to four years of age. By
even that young age, a child can infer what another child
perceives even though that perception is different from his own.