Why Do We Care if Children Develop Empathy?


Empathy is the capability to share another being's emotions and feelings.

Not to be confused with sympathy: Sympathy is the feeling of compassion, concern and/or pity for another, the wish to see them better off or happier. 

But why do we care if our children develop empathy? 

Early On

  • A child that has a sense of empathy is able to negotiate. When he can recognize the feelings of another and imagine what that emotional state would feel like, a child is far more likely to want to compromise, to reach an agreement that feels good to all parties involved.


         Mom: Oh Caleb, that's the toy that baby was playing with. Will you give it back to him?

         Caleb: No! I want it.

         Mom: Can you see how sad the baby feels? His face is all crumpled and he's crying and reaching for that toy. He was so happy playing with it.

         Caleb: But he can play with another toy... Wait, I can give him this toy back and then he will be happy again! And when he throws it on the floor I can pick it up and have a turn!

  • An empathetic child is naturally polite and well mannered. "Thank You" and "Please" feel good, and this is clear to a child that recognizes the emotional state of others. This is why, when empathy is in place, there is no place for prompting, there is in fact no need.


        Child: Thank you for the present!

        Aunt Sue: Oh, you are so welcome! I am so glad you like it.

        Child (to mom): Mom, Aunt Sue liked it that I said thank you to her.

        Mom: Yes she did. She was so happy you liked it and it felt really good to her to be thanked.

  • A child that has developed empathy is kind. There is a natural drive to help others feel good, so when an child notices the duress of another, he is likely to look for ways to be of service.


          Child: Mama, that girl at the pet shop doesn't have any Silly Bandz. She's sad about that. Next time we go there I want to bring her some of the ones that I wear.

  • An empathetic child is cooperative because the feelings of others are noticed and momentarily vicariously felt, making her more inclined to adjust her own actions to help others.


          Mom: Baby, I am super cold standing outside of the car, here in the snow. Will you hop quickly into the car seat and let me buckle you up?

          Child: Sure Mom. Will you count how fast I am? And then you can get inside where it is toasty warm!

  • A child that has the ability to empathize is not dependent on rules, or an adult reminding him of those rules. He will be sure to not hit his friend, not because there is a rule that says: No Hitting (and an adult ready to mete out punishment for rule-breakers), but because his friend will feel hurt, sad, or both.


          Child: I scraped my feet along the sides of the slide to slow me down because Larkin was at the bottom and I didn't want to crash into him! That would hurt so bad wouldn't it? 'Cuz my feet are super hard and his face is super soft. 

  • An empathetic child can be parented by any member of the community. Any adult that can describe the emotional situation, and offer empathy and information, can have an influence over a child that cares about the feelings of others. Authority isn't necessary, nor is a knowledge of "the rules".


           Uncle Bob: Hey kids, it looks like the wall is getting a little bashed up from your jumping. I'm concerned that your dad will be bummed out by that. If I put the cushions down here will you switch to jumping there?

  • A child that uses empathy makes good decisions. Naturally factoring in the emotions of others makes for choices that make sense for all. This is also known as common sense.


          Child: I put my shoes in a stack near the coat rack. I don't want to leave them on the stairs! No way! 'Cuz someone could trip on them. That wouldn't be good!  


  • A child with empathy will later use empathy with their own kids, and then those kids will develop empathy. 
  • A child that develops empathy becomes an older kid, or adult, that is enjoyable to be around. Empathetic friends are the very best kind, the sort that you call at the most trying times, their house the one you run to when in distress. The friend that uses empathy, listening and feeling, instead of judging and advising is the kind of friend you want for life.

          example: a.(empathy)

          Julie: I just don't know what to do. Mark is just not the man I thought I was marrying and I am so pissed-off and sad about that. Arg!

          Sophia: Oh man! That is so upsetting, huh? Disappointment, anger, sadness all mixed together. BUMMER. This is not the way you wanted things to be.

          b. (advising and judging)

          Julie: I just don't know what to do. Mark is just not the man I thought I was marrying and I am so pissed-off and sad about that. Arg!

           Sophie: Ugh! Mark is such a jerk! You know he is always going to be that way. You should just kick him to the curb.

  • A child that learns empathy can use self-empathy as an adult. Self-empathy is a valuable tool when facing an emotional challenge. It is invaluable for emotional health because it means that she can feel better without needing to change her circumstances or the actions and feelings of others. Simply recognizing her own feelings and giving herself empathy for them can help tremendously.


          Oh my god! I am having such a hard time right now. I am sleepy and crabby and the kids keep fighting. Man I am frustrated.

  • A child that learns, through empathy, to make good decisions, will become an adult that makes good empathetic decisions. Examples of this are:

            - putting the cell phone on vibrate or turning it to off when at dinner.

            - taking only one piece of cake so that there is enough for everyone.

            - picking up your dog's poop, even if there isn't a law that dictates doing so.

  • A child that is empathetic will grow into an empathetic adult, perhaps an empathetic world leader. A soldier need be devoid of empathy, or at least able to set empathy aside if he/she is to raise a weapon and kill others. World peace, an idea as large as that, starts with an empathetic child.

For Parents

  • With empathy as a parenting tool, parents don't have to know the answer or the solution to every problem. In fact, by receiving genuine empathy, by feeling heard and understood, a child is then free to come up with her own solutions. (Often these solutions are not ones that we as parents would ever dream up.)


          Mom: You're really sad and frustrated huh? You want those doll clothes to fit but they don't. And we don't know where the other ones are, huh? Darn it.

          Child: Yeah! And I don't want my baby to be naked because then she doesn't look real, like a kid.

          Mom: Yeah. You have a certain idea of how you want to play and things aren't working out.

          Child: Oh! I know! How 'bout the baby is a newborn! Because babies come out of the belly naked! That will be perfect!

  • Empathy is another way to love each other. By truly seeing one another and stepping into each others emotional shoes we are loving effectively and profoundly.
  • When empathy is in play everything is easier.
  • Empathy works.


ps. Every one of the examples above are taken directly from our life.


AUTHOR: Natalie Christensen