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Maria Shriver

Life Ed: Teaching Kids Empathy

From CEOs to educators, doctors to therapists, empathy is a quality being championed across the board. But how can parents and guardians work to instill empathy in their kids, helping them connect with, relate to, and better care for others?

Here to provide expert guidance, is Bob Sornson, Ph.D., the founder of the Early Learning Foundation, and a former classroom teacher and school administrator for more than 30 years. Sornson, a father of four, is also a bestselling author whose books include “Stand in My Shoes: Kids Learning About Empathy.”

Image: Children play on a large mound of sand on the beach.
Children play on a large mound of sand on the beach. Mel Evans / AP file

Empathy is at the heart of a great family culture. It’s noticing how another person is feeling, and for a moment standing in their shoes. It opens the door to understanding others, appreciating differences, noticing and caring. It is the antithesis of self-serving, whiny, and narcissistic behaviors. Daniel Goleman calls empathy “the foundation of all emotional intelligence.”

Optimally, we help our children learn to focus, persist, delay gratification and self-calm in the first several years of life. With the capacity for self-regulation in place, empathy begins to blossom. By helping children learn empathy, we raise the odds they will have strong positive social relationships, truly care for others, and be able to set appropriate limits in their own lives without using angry behaviors or words.

Empathy does not offer excuses for bad choices. As a parent, sometimes empathy must be followed by a consequence, or by allowing some sadness to come into the lives of our children. But with empathy, we can give consequences with love rather than anger.

Here are some tips for developing an empathetic family culture:

1. Start by building a family environment in which your children feel safe and secure. Children who are highly stressed or afraid of physical or emotional harm give attention to their own well-being, and have less ability to notice the well-being of others.

2. Family routines build a sense of predictable security for children. Well established routines also help your kids practice self-regulation skills as they learn how to wait calmly, persist, focus, and delay gratification. Consistent, calm routines for morning, bedtime, family meals and chores, help children learn how things work in your family.

3. Help children develop listening and observation skills by taking time for family meetings, family meals without tech distractions, and family adventures.

4. Self-regulation skills are the foundation for empathy. Don’t take self-regulation skills for granted. Find ways to purposefully help children learn to be calm and strong on the inside.

5. Consider developing a clear set of expectations for how you wish to treat each other in your family. Take time to talk about it. Respectful speech and behavior build a powerful sense of connection.

6. Use great literature and tell stories about the people you admire to inspire kids to understand the experience of others.

7. Model empathy. Your kids are watching!

8. Relationships matter. Caring about others is the first step in noticing their experience and feelings. Help your children build relationships which inspire them to trust and care for others.

Empathy Resources

Online Resources:

Start Empathy, an Ashoka initiative

The Empathy Road Map, a free comprehensive guide featuring strategies for bringing empathy into the classroom.

Activating Empathy: A Road to Changemaker Classrooms. A free on-line course for educators.

Five-Minute Film Festival: Nine Videos on Kindness, Empathy, and Connection by Amy Erin Borovoy

Empathy: The Most Important Back-to-School Supply by Homa Tavangar

The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy. Interviews and information on building a global movement toward empathy.

Books:

"Charlotte’s Web" E.B. White

"Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ," By Daniel Goleman

"Have You Filled a Bucket Today? A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids," By Carol McCloud and David Messing

"Ramona the Pest," By Beverly Cleary

Books By Bob Sornson:

"Stand in My Shoes: Kids Learning about Empathy"

"Stand Up and Speak Up for Yourself and Others"

"Teaching and Joy"

"The Juice Box Bully"

"Creating Classrooms Where Teachers Love to Teach and Students Love to Learn"

For more information and inspiration visit MariaShriver.com