Why We Need Empathy, and How We Teach it to Children

There is an increasing dialogue in social organisations — in schools, workplaces, court rooms, governments — on the importance of empathy.

Empathy is what sets us apart from machines and even from many other animals.

It’s what enables us to relate to other people and their experiences…

It’s what enables us to understand them.

And it’s what makes us compassionate.

So it’s little wonder why it’s so integral to the social experience of schooling and childhood.

But empathy is not innate — it’s learnt.

And like most things, it’s best learnt during childhood.

And the best teachers are adults.

Why we need empathy

Empathy yields kindness — a quality most parents hope to instil in their children.

And part of the source of this kindness is courage…

Courage to stand up for ourselves and others.

In a psychology study of 900 11-13 year olds, children with higher levels of empathy were more likely to engage in ‘assertive bystander behaviour’ — that is, they were more likely to stand up to a bully on behalf of someone outside of their friendship group.

This kind of courage can be life changing for a child who is feeling isolated at school or being bullied, but doesn’t have the courage to stand up for themselves.

Empathy makes us happier, too.

People with empathy have stronger personal connections and more meaningful, supportive relationships.

But it’s not purely an emotional matter…

Empathy is an integral part of social and emotional learning, or SEL.

Research shows that SEL is crucial in navigating the many challenges (social or otherwise) that occur during schooling, and that can inhibit our ability to learn.

A 2013 research report states that SEL ‘involves the processes through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions’.

The exact kind of life skills we teach in our counselling sessions!

Plus, scientists think that there is a very strong link between SEL (with empathy as a core component) and the formula for academic success:

‘Cognitive achievement is 50 per cent of the equation, and social and emotional skills are the other 50 per cent’, says Vicki Zakrzewski, Education Director of The Greater Good Science Centre.

A US educator believes that this may because of the emotional aptitude it takes to be a ‘deep thinker’.

Plus, the more social and emotional skills students are equipped with, the easier they will find the social aspect of schooling, and the more they will be able to focus on their learning.

Finally (but not exhaustively), a strong sense of empathy can be the key to professional success, too.

This is because empathy drives thoughtful problem solving, as it allows the empath to put themselves in other people’s shoes to solve a consumer or client need.

Employers recognise this, with one study ranking empathy as the fifth most important people skill needed to succeed in the workplace.

So, it’s clear that empathy is a not just a positive personal quality — it’s an ongoingly beneficial life skill.

But how do we teach it to our children?  

Children learn empathy largely from their parents, but also from teachers and other adult role models.

For young kids — both girls and boys — playing with baby dolls can be a great start to the process.

By allowing them to simulate dressing, feeding, calming and caring for babies, they learn to have compassion for their dolls (and ultimately others) from a young age.

Imaginative play helps kids to self-regulate and manage emotions.

When children play Doctors or House, they solve problems ‘in character’, and ‘take empathy for a test drive.’

Yale researcher Dorothy Singer believes this helps kids to ‘learn how to cope with feelings, how to bring the large, confusing world into a small manageable size, and how to become socially adept as they share, take turns and cooperate with each other.’

Reading, especially reading together with parents for young children, can also be a powerful way to learn empathy.

‘When we open a book, and share our voice and imagination with a child, that child learns to see the world through someone else’s eyes’, says author Anne Dewdney.

Reading with your child and pausing to ask questions about the plot and characters helps young kids to empathise with unfamiliar experiences and emotions.

Bronte Coates of Readings Bookstore has listed some of her favourite books that help children to ‘kickstart conversations about difference, kindness, communication and understanding’ for kids of all ages.

And evidently, it’s never too early to start, with suggestions for books that encourage empathy from babies, by exploring concepts of difference and acceptance without being too complicated.

For teenagers and older kids, encourage them to read widely, and discuss current events openly (but age-appropriately) with them over dinner or in your one-on-one time with them.

Also be aware of the shows and movies that they’re watching, and read up on the topics the stories may be dealing with.

Current youth-focussed shows such as 13 Reasons Why deal with very mature and distressing content, but also offer an important opportunity to consider the impact of empathy and compassion.

You can read more about helping teenagers to develop empathy in a blog post from our archive here.

It’s clear that empathy is one of the most defining — and important — human qualities.

And with the wide-ranging benefits of having a strong sense of empathy, it’s a life lesson that is never too soon to teach.

References & Further Reading 

Gayle Allen & Deborah Farmer Kris, ‘Why it is imperative to teach empathy to boys’, Mind/Shift 

Katrina Shwartz, ‘Empathy: the key to social and emotional learning’, Mind/Shift 

Katrina Shwartz, ‘Teaching social and emotional learning in schools’, Mind/Shift

Justin H G Williams, ‘How do children learn empathy?’, The Conversation 

 

 

 

 

 

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