One of the goals for Christian parents should be to raise kids who truly love other people like Jesus did. Heart issues always seem to confuse parents the most. How can you know what your kids’ hearts are really like? How can you influence them to want to be like Jesus, including in how they treat others?
You can make all sorts of rules about how your kids are to treat others. You can tell them every Bible story and have them memorize every verse about loving others. Yet, you could still raise a child who doesn’t love others like Jesus. Or worse yet one who is unkind or even mean or spiteful.
Thankfully, science has done some research that can help. It turns out raising children who love like Jesus involves parents loving their kids like Jesus. What does that mean practically in how you parent your kids? Here are some of the top things they found parents did that led to their children being more empathetic, loving, kind and helpful as they grew.
- Facial expressions and emotions. Studies have found that as young as infancy, children who can interpret facial expressions and emotions easily, show more early signs of empathy and even caring than children who struggle recognizing emotions in others. Genetics can play a role in the ability to recognize and interpret emotional states from facial cues, body language, vocal tones, etc. If your kids struggle, spend time showing them photos of various expressions associated with emotions or act them out yourself. Make it a game. Work with your kids until they show the ability to identify even subtle emotional clues.
- Share your emotions in age appropriate ways. You don’t want to burden a toddler with every negative emotion you feel. On the other hand, hiding your emotions or pretending your only emotional state is happiness does not help your child develop empathy. They need to understand when they say something hurtful to you, it makes you sad. No need to be overly dramatic, but it is one way of teaching them their words and actions impact the emotions of others.
- Work on developing the prefrontal cortex and other areas of the brain associated with executive functions. The prefrontal cortex (primarily) or decision making, executive function part of the brain is one of the last to develop. There are activities you can do with your child that can help this area of the brain develop more quickly than it would on its own. Why is this important for empathy? Studies have shown that if the prefrontal cortex is underdeveloped, seeing someone in pain may create distress in a child, but not the desire to actually help the person in pain. A more developed prefrontal cortex allows the child to move away from the emotional state enough to create and execute a plan to help the person in need.
- Work on self control. Studies found that children who were shy and/or well behaved showed more empathy than those whose behavior was “uninhibited”. One can assume, this is in part because those children are more likely to notice someone in need.
- Explain “stranger danger” carefully. You absolutely want to teach your kids skills that will keep them safe from predators pretending they need help locating a lost puppy. On the other hand, those incidents are rare and need to be differentiated from the need for them to help people in real need in ways that are age appropriate for them. These will sometimes change as your kids grow older. Your kids should never get in a car with a stranger at any age, for example, but they can be taught to go run get you to help or offer to make a 911 call. Studies showed that children raised with an extreme fear of strangers refused to even help peers they did not know.
- Encourage facial mimicry games with infants and toddlers. Researchers think there may be a connection between the ability to mimic another’s facial expressions and the ability to connect emotions to facial expressions. It may seem natural to you to laugh when your baby laughs, but that may be because your mother did the same for you as an infant. Playing games like peek-a-boo and encouraging mimicry when interacting with your baby can also increase empathy.
- Respond to your child’s needs appropriately. Secure attachment to parents and the responsiveness of care givers to the needs of infants and toddlers plays a large role in the empathy development of children. If your child spends a great deal of time in a day care situation, it is imperative you find ways to monitor how responsive caregivers are to the needs of your child. This does not mean catering to every whim of a three year old. It does mean, however, that you acknowledge his or her expressed need and explain in loving ways why you aren’t letting him or her have or do certain things. Remember a child’s needs also include loving, consistent, firm boundaries.
- Maternal warmth. Personally, I believe this is important from both parents, but the study only examined maternal warmth. Those hugs, snuggles, kisses and “I love you” a million times a day make a huge difference in how empathetic a child becomes.
You can’t control your child’s heart, but you can influence it. Teaching your child about Jesus and how God wants him or her to love and care for others is crucial. Adding the above elements to your parenting toolbox, as well as demonstrating empathy for others in your own life, will make it much more likely you will raise a loving, caring, empathetic child.