Teaching Empathy to Young Children

Teaching Empathy to Young Children - Parenting Like HannahEmpathy is often thought of as the ability to imagine life from the perspective of someone else. Yet for a Christian, empathy needs to be so much more. You see, the Bible tells us over and over again not to just imagine what life is like for others, but to do what we can to reflect God’s love to them, serve them and point them towards God.

The earlier children are exposed to the ideas of empathy and serving, the easier it is for those ideas to become a part of the very fabric of who they are. Parents often begin the process of teaching empathy quite naturally. You have probably  told your young child to “be gentle” because if they are not it hurts the other person. Or you may have told him not to “be mean” and hurt another child’s feelings.

What can you do for more complex ideas? How can you explain autism or Alzheimer’s to a very young child? How can they understand what life is like for a little person or someone whose home was destroyed in a fire? For very young children, the answer can often start with a picture book.

Picture books are great ways to begin to introduce complex ideas. The words are simple and the pages are filled with pictures that help your child visualize what is happening in the story more accurately. (I am in the process of creating a list of empathy building picture books, but I will give you a few I have found so far at the end of this post.)

Once you have read the book together, talk about what happened. How did the people in the story feel? What makes your child think they felt that way? Why did each person feel the way they did? Did some people change during the story? How?

If your child is more mature, you may start introducing the idea of what they might feel like if they were that person. What would their day be like? Would they interact with their friends differently than they do now? What challenges would they face? What would make them happy?

Once your child has practiced with picture books, introduce the stories in the Bible as empathy building stories. How do your children think the lepers felt? What was it like to be the lame man by the Pool of Bethesda? Why did Namaan act the way he did? How did Jesus or the people of the day treat the people who were struggling with something?

Once you have read and discussed a book or Bible story, you are ready to begin tackling the second part of empathy – acting on the knowledge your child now has. Do you know someone who has the same issues as the person in the book? Is there an organization that serves the people in the book? Does your church help people with similar issues? Find a way, to meet someone like the person in the book you read and discover a way you and your child can make a positive difference in his life.

If the person asks you why you want to meet her and why you want to help, share how you want your child to learn how to reflect God’s love accurately to everyone. You may be surprised to learn the people you have come to help also have a lot to teach you and your child about love.

Want to start the picture book empathy project? Here are a few books I found that you and your child might enjoy:

My Brother Charlie – autism

Great-Uncle Alfred Forgets – Alzheimer’s

Alex Is My Friend – little people

Rainbow Joe And Me Rainbow Joe And Me – blindness

A Chair for My Mother 25th Anniversary Edition (Reading Rainbow Books) – fire victims

Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan  – Lost Boys of Sudan

If you have found other picture books you and your children have enjoyed and which helped them develop empathy, I would love for you to leave a comment with the name of the book and the author. It may help others create an empathy library.

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Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. (Deuteronomy 11:18-19 NIV)