Thoughtful Parenting: Teaching children empathy

Deirdre Pepin
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

Many parents wonder if they can teach their children empathy. Is it nature or nurture? The answer is yes, you can. It is both genetic and contextual.

Empathy is the ability to recognize, understand and share others’ thoughts and feelings. It is the essence of being human and the foundation of ethics. Empathy entails understanding we are separate individuals who have unique perspectives. It requires awareness of what common thoughts and feelings are in a given situation and imagining what alternatives exist.

Early childhood milestones critical to developing empathy include having a secure, loving relationship with a parent. Children must feel accepted and understood by parents. Around 6 months, babies start social referencing, or looking to their parent’s reactions in new situations as cues for their own understanding.

Around 2 years, they develop theory of mind which allows them to understand that other people have their own mental and emotional states. They also recognize their own reflection in the mirror, indicating they see themselves as separate individuals.

How can you develop your child’s empathy?

  • Teach nonverbal cues: Observe people’s mannerisms, facial expressions and body language and talk about how they might be feeling. Look at pictures or watch videos on mute. Identify and label the feelings to practice recognizing signs of different emotions. Challenge your child to make a face or gesture for each emotion.
  • Discuss appropriate ethical dilemmas: Help your child appreciate different perspectives by talking about moral scenarios. (Should I tell my friend Sarah I don’t like the smell of the perfume she gave me for my birthday? Should we invite all our neighbors to the neighborhood BBQ or just the ones we like most?)
  • Identify similarities between people: Research shows we tend to feel more empathy for people who are similar to us. Help your child see commonalities between themselves and others, especially people of different races and places as well as people who face challenges or hardship. Don’t shelter your child from people who seem different.
  • Incorporate books and pets: Use fictional characters and the animals in your life to point out and inquire about emotions and motives in various plots. (How do Pooh and Piglet feel when they get lost in the forest? Why do you think our family cat likes to sit in the windowsill?) Free livestreaming animal cams are a great way to show and imagine what it’s like to be or care for another.

Deirdre Pepin is the resource development and public relations coordinator at Horizons Specialized Services. If your child is under age 3, and you have a question about his or her development, contact Child & Family Services Coordinator Michelle Hoza at or 970-871-8558.

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