Children begin to develop genuine empathy around two years old. They begin to understand that another person can have feelings different from their own, and also begin to show the capacity to soothe another person’s sadness or discomfort.
Parents play a vital role in their child’s development of empathy. Empathy is a two part process. The first part of the process involves the ability to think critically. Critical thinking is the ability to analyze a situation prior to coming up with a judgment, answer, or solution. The second part of the process is developing an emotional IQ. Emotional IQ is the ability to be aware of one’s own emotions and the emotions of others, and to handle social-emotional interactions with kindness and fairness.
Here are five practical ways to help your child develop empathy through critical thinking and emotional intelligence:
- Start early. Teach your child to observe and then think through situations that you both encounter TOGETHER. Ask your child what she observes in various situations. Ask “What would you do if…?” type of questions. Encourage her to think on her own and solve problems creatively. Help her to develop confidence in her own perspective. For a two year old, it can be about reasoning through something simple (i.e. “What do we do when we see a stoplight? Why do we stop when it is red?” or “What do you need to wear today? What is the temperature and how does it change the way we dress?”). It can also be offering a toddler simple choices (i.e. “Should we pick this toy to play with or the other one right now?”). For an eight year old, it may be reasoning through a more complex situation (i.e. “We need to figure out how to get homework done without getting upset. How do you think we can do that?” or “Your Cub Scout group needs to raise money for the camping trip. What are some ways that you think would be effective?”). For a twelve year old, it could be observing a larger problem (i.e. “It seems that your friends are all wanting those new shoes. Do you feel they are worth the money?”).
- Praise your child’s observations and thought processes. Use statements like, “I like how you are thinking!”
- Ask your child what another person may be thinking or feeling.Help your child identify and recognize emotions in herself and in others. Use descriptive language when talking about feelings. Ask what she would do in various social situations and why.
- Help your child feel empowered to problem-solve and make a difference in how others feel. If your child notes that another child at school is being mistreated by peers, ask your child to think of what she could do to help make the situation better. Could she choose to be kind? Could she choose to speak up for someone more vulnerable?
- Teach your child to think independently, respectfully express her own opinions, and to listen to the opinions of others. Whether you are discussing favorite foods at the dinner table or having conversations about world peace, model sharing opinions in a way that fosters conversation and respectful dialogue. When your child disagrees with you, welcome her thoughts and praise her independent thinking.
Children who think critically and are emotional intelligent develop empathy readily. They become caring individuals who feel empowered to make a difference in the world around them. It can be one of the most beautiful parts of development to observe in your children. You will see them become keen observers, thinking deeply about what they see and growing in compassion for others.
“10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.” Romans 12:10 NIV