The holidays are a great time to teach empathy to small children. There are so many illustrations of generosity and kindness, and opportunities to encourage awareness of similarity with and compassion for others.
Here are 10 easy ways to teach empathy to small children this holiday season.
1. The “Golden Rule” List Activity
For this activity, start with a piece of paper (a large sheet for a classroom). Create two columns. Title the left column, “I would like others to…” and the right, “So I will…”
Start on the left, encouraging children to voice the actions and behaviors they see as positive in others. Examples are “not bully” or “be helpful.” Once your left column is complete, draw an arrow from each phrase over to the right column.
Now, encourage the child(ren) to help you rewrite the phrases in the right column. Some phrases can be written identically, others you will need to adjust. Read through the words and phrases in the right hand column to illustrate to children how they can treat others the way they would like others to treat them.
2. Use Pretend Play
One of the easiest ways to encourage empathy with young children is to talk about feelings during pretend play. As your child creates a story, ask them to think about how different characters in the story feel.
For example, if one doll doesn’t want to share with another, ask your child how that might make the second doll feel. Children can use pretend play to express emotions in a safe space where they feel free of judgment, because the characters are the ones “feeling” those emotions.
3. Foster Security
Children are much more likely to express emotions, a crucial step in recognizing and regulating them, when they feel secure with the adults in their lives. Encourage children to be open, and reserve your judgment.
When children express emotions, even though their reactions may seem undesirable to adults (tantrum in the grocery store, anyone?) this is an important part of emotional learning. Try not to react harshly. When children have calmed down, talk to them about their feelings.
4. Avoid Shaming
Feelings of shame can preoccupy children and keep them from experiencing empathy about other people’s emotions. You may have observed this in your own children or in children playing together in public: If one child gets hurt by accident, the other child is more likely to show empathy and make sure the first child is okay.
But if child two hurts child one, child two is more likely to become distant and shy away from requested apologies. That’s because child two’s shame has overridden empathetic responses. Child two has labeled themselves the “bad guy,” because they have probably been called “bad” for similar behaviors in the past.
Instead of reacting with shaming, caregivers can encourage calm discussion and mediate between two children. Try to point out to child two the way child one is feeling, and what child two could do differently next time.
5. Random Acts of Kindness
Random acts of kindness encourage children to think of people other than themselves. They don’t need to be elaborate. They can be for friends, family, or strangers. This Pinterest board has great ideas for random acts of kindness for kids.
6. The Toothpaste Activity
Parents swear by this decades-old illustration for teaching kids kindness and empathy. First, grab a tube of toothpaste. Ask the child to squeeze the toothpaste out on the counter. Then, ask them to put it back. The child will recognize that it’s impossible to get the toothpaste back into the tube once it’s out.
This activity illustrates how unkind words cannot be taken back once they are said. This activity is great for young kids, but also kids going into the gossip-laden world of middle school and high school, to encourage reflection before spreading rumors or speaking unkindly to others.
7. The “Giving Tree” Craft
For this fun craft/activity, cut out or draw a tree. The trunk can be labeled “The Giving Tree.” The top of the tree will be titled “I can give…” Then, walk children through the process of thinking of things they can offer to others in need. Examples are hugs, friendship, food, or toys.
This exercise not only encourages the child to think about what they can do for others, but can be a great jumping-off point to inspire random acts of kindness, donations, or volunteering as a family.
8. Encourage Reflection
Studies have shown that young children are much more likely to express empathy toward a hypothetical “friend” than a “not friend.” But, researchers found that, if they stopped to ask children to name some emotions the “not friend” might be feeling about a hypothetical situation, they were much more likely to extend empathy toward “not friend”s, as well.
Whenever possible, encourage children to name emotions others might be feeling about a challenging situation. This begins the process of considering the feelings of strangers, and treating others as equal.
9. Do a Similarity Exercise
Additionally, ask children to think of similarities between themselves and others. The “other” could be a random person at the park, or a classmate or sibling they’re having a conflict with.
This exercise helps children recognize that people have much more in common with each other than they have differences. It also encourages them to extend empathy even to people they don’t know, like a stranger in need.
10. Talk Openly
Caregivers should talk openly about emotions, prejudices, biases and the struggles of others. Don’t shy away from broaching topics like racism, mental health, and other discrimination with young children. Research shows that a “color blind” approach, previously thought to be the best way to discourage racism in children, is actually less effective than a proactive approach.
This is because children are inundated with biased popular culture representations of people of different races or socioeconomic backgrounds. Without an adult present to explain and contradict these biases, children internalize them. Speak explicitly with young and older children alike about these issues.
Some of these ideas are easy to talk about but not necessarily to do. Many of us who are adults now were raised with outdated ideas about how to foster empathy, and have developed habits accordingly.
Try starting with one or even two of these ideas or activities and see how your family changes!