Webster says, “Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Marriage Family Therapist, Noah Kempler, says, “Empathy promotes deep relationships, helps build emotional intelligence and insight, fosters cooperation, builds self-esteem, and allows for problem solving.”
I model empathy for my children when I acknowledge their feelings. Instead of yelling at my son to speak to me respectfully, I first let him know I understand he is upset. After I connect with him, I reinforce that it is not okay to speak to me harshly (Kempler calls this technique “the arm of empathy and authority.” In Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen, a similar parenting approach is called “connect before you correct"). With my daughter, I communicate that I know she feels sad when I drop her off at school. Then, I quietly leave while letting her teachers transition her into the classroom. (I can also role-play with her ahead of time, as I know separation is hard for her).
The more understanding I give to my children, the better foundation they will have for displaying their own empathy. Empathy is a learned skill, not easily understood by young children. Researchers say empathy is first seen around age two, and by the time a child is four, he begins to associate his emotions with the feelings of others (www.psychcentral.com).
One way that I spark empathy in my home is by reading picture books that model empathy. Here is a list of my 5 Favorite Picture Books That Spark Empathy …
Have You Filled a Bucket Today?: A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids by Carol McCloud
Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes
I Am Human: A Book of Empathy by Susan Verde, Peter H. Reynolds (Illustrator)
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña
Horton Hears a Who! by Dr. Seuss,