Empathy is crucial for showing God’s love – especially to people who may seem difficult to love. Kids are often naturally empathetic, but as they get older, empathy can begin to fade. Children with certain special needs or with trauma in their past, may also find empathy difficult.
Regardless of how empathetic your kids are currently, there are some fun things you can do to help them become more empathetic.
- Act it out. This is especially helpful for young children or children who struggle reading facial cues or noticing when words, facial expressions and body language don’t match. Take turns making facial expressions and having the others guess your emotion. For older kids you might want to have a variety of emotions written on slips of paper and players draw a slip with an emotion to portray when it is their turn. Make the game more difficult by making your body language reveal the true emotion while your face is trying to suppress the real emotion. Or don’t show the face at all and have them guess only from body language.
- Practice with photos. Grab old family photos, or cut out pictures from magazines. Ask your kids to name the emotions the person may be feeling. If they struggle, give them clues of things to notice, like facial expressions. As they become more adept at the game, turn the sound off on your television and choose random shows. Have them guess how emotions are shifting as people converse.
- Read books together. As you read a picture book, ask your kids what they think the characters are feeling. Have them share why they chose the emotions they did. Eventually, you may be able to ask them what they think the characters will do next based on their current emotional state. With upper elementary kids and teens, consider reading books like Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper that were written to encourage empathy. Or you can choose any book where people experience a range of emotions. Then talk about how various people in the book must have felt at different points.
- Examine the life of Jesus. Read the various stories in the life of Jesus. Ask your kids to point out when they believe Jesus is showing empathy. Why do they think he is empathetic in that situation? What emotions is he seeing in the other people? Do their words and actions always make their emotional state obvious? How does Jesus treat them when he is showing empathy?
- Write empathetic backstories. You don’t necessarily need to actually write these stories down. The purpose is to encourage your kids to think of reasons why people make the choices they do. Focus on getting them to develop benign backstories – the person was having a tough day versus the person has a heart filled with hate. The goal is to get your kids in the habit of giving people the benefit of the doubt, rather than jumping to the most negative possibility.
- Encourage verbalizing emotions. It’s important for your kids to understand their words and actions can impact the emotions of others. They need to know mom and dad can get their feelings hurt, too. Teaching them to verbalize emotions in appropriate ways can also decrease the problems that can happen when people make incorrect guesses about the emotions of others.
- On vacations to new places, go where the “regular” people live. Many tourist spots try to give visitors a fantasy experience. They want you to believe life there is perfect. Unfortunately, in many places the reality can be harsh. If you live in an area where it is rare to encounter anyone who is different than your family, this is especially important. Your kids need to see a broad spectrum of what people might experience in life.
- Encourage people to tell your kids their stories. We attended church with this “little old lady” in her 90’s. The kids were so amazed to hear her stories of working at a fast food restaurant in her 90’s and having dinner with the Shah of Iran – complete with fussing at him – when she was younger and temporarily living in Iran with her husband. They didn’t know who the Shah of Iran was, but it made them look at sweet Miss Emma in an entirely different way!
Teaching your kids to have empathy towards others is part of teaching them how to reflect God’s love accurately. It’s worth your time and effort to help them develop true empathy for those around them.