How we teach our children empathy depends on their age and emotional development. In young children, the most important work is done by modeling empathy and supporting them in learning to identify and regulate their emotions. However, we can also begin the work of teaching empathy in more direct ways via art, play, and books. As Dr. Siegel and Mary Hartzell state in their insightful book Parenting From the Inside Out, “Various studies have shown that parents can actively promote a child’s development of the capacity to understand the inner lives of themselves and others by engaging in interactions such as pretend play, storytelling, and talking to children about emotions and their impact on how we behave.”
Recently I’ve become particularly interested in how to begin to introduce the concept of empathy to preschoolers and kindergartners. We don’t have to sit our children down and define empathy for them in order to teach them how it relates to their everyday lives. We can weave empathy into our daily routines and teach the skill through activities we already enjoy. One easy strategy is exploring empathy through story. You’ll be hard pressed to find a young child who doesn’t love books, particularly if she has been exposed most of her life. We know that the benefits of reading to our children are endless: it promotes literacy, expands their vocabulary, and offers parents a great way to connect with their children. A bonus is that it also teaches kids about a variety of subjects, empathy and interpersonal skills included.
In preschool and kindergarten, children are able to decipher facial expressions in books and surmise how a character might be feeling based on the contents of the story. This is a simple, easy way to teach your child awareness of the feelings of others. After finishing a page, encourage your child to explore what’s happening in the picture. Does the boy look happy or sad? Why might he be feeling sad? How would you feel if you were excluded like he is in the story? Often after reading a new story, particularly one that evoked a strong emotion, my son likes to act out the plot line. This play can follow the story closely, or it may borrow characters from other books to resolve a conflict. Through creative role play he’s practicing social skills to solve problems, and it’s all based on his ability to empathize with the characters in the story!
Here’s a list of age appropriate books which may help your young child begin to explore empathy, social justice, and the value of recognizing the feelings of others. Of course I encourage you to screen each book first, as temperaments among children vary widely:
- Otis and Scarecrow by Loren Long
- Horton Hears a Who! by Dr. Seuss
- Hey, Little Ant by Phillip and Hannah Hoose & Debbie Tilley
- Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev & Taeeun Yoo
- Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox & Julie Vivas
- Is There Really a Human Race? by Jamie Lee Curtis & Laura Cornell