Fun Ways to Teach Kids Empathy

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.

Top Tips for Raising Empathetic Kids

“You just shouldn’t treat people that way,” the clerk muttered as I stepped up to the desk. I asked if the previous customer had been rude to her. “No,” she replied, “It was a co-worker who chose to assume the worst about me and never considered it might not be true. Not to mention, she was really ugly to me in the process. My feelings were of no concern to her.”

I could feel her pain. I had been through a similar experience recently. Why do people always seem to assign the worst possible motives to others – even if there is no evidence that was indeed their motive? Why do they believe they don’t need the full story before rushing to judgment? Why do they feel justified in whatever they choose to say or do if someone has made them unhappy in some way?

The truth lies in empathy, love and forgiveness – three character traits modeled perfectly by Jesus during his life on earth. Unfortunately, we don’t always model Jesus as closely as we could in those attributes. Let’s be honest, it can feel a little good to unload all of your frustrations about life onto someone who you believe has wronged you. They become symbolic of everyone who has ever hurt you.

Sadly, we pass our poor attitudes and behaviors on to our children We may not actively tell them to forget about empathy, love and forgiveness. If they see us do it frequently, however, they learn that lesson well.

How can we teach our kids to be more like Jesus? In many ways it starts with empathy – the ability to understand how others feel in a situation. It’s what Jesus modeled in the feeding of the 4000 and many other times in his ministry. Teaching your kids to be empathetic begins with all of you remembering and practicing some empathy basics.

  • Empathy takes intentionality. To be empathetic, you have to be able to consistently take a breath before speaking, acting or judging and try to understand what the other person may be thinking and feeling and why. That doesn’t happen by accident. You and your kids will have to be intentional about making this pausing and reflection a habit.
  • Empathy can mean asking respectful questions. Sometimes the situation is so complex, we can’t begin to easily put ourselves “in their shoes”. Asking respectful questions can help. “Can you help me understand what happened to help you come to that conclusion?” is usually more productive than just assuming the worst.
  • Empathy isn’t about judgment. Just because I can understand and have empathy for the brokenness that has encouraged someone to become an addict, doesn’t mean I approve of their choices. It does, however, remind me of the love God wants me to have for them and the passion I should have for helping them be who God wants them to be.
  • Empathy and sympathy are different. Sympathy can be a bit condescending. It can give others the impression that we have the attitude we are somehow better than the other person. Empathy is trying to understand the other person as well as we possibly can. This understanding can build bridges between people who might be enemies under other circumstances.
  • Empathy acts in loving ways. Yes, at times that may be “tough love”, but that can also be done in ways that are kind, patient, self-controlled, and all of those attributes found in I Corinthians 13 and the Fruit of the Spirit.
  • Empathy starts by assuming the best. Most people don’t wake up in the morning plotting ways to ruin your day. People are tired, overwhelmed and make poor choices. That doesn’t mean they are at heart hateful, heartless or anything else your mind wants to immediately label them. Teach your kids to start by assuming the best and see what happens. If you give most people a chance, you will see the good in them. Make it a family habit to look for the good in everyone, rather than acting like professional critics.
  • Empathy is forgiving – as often as it takes. Forgiveness is not saying you agree with those choices. It is giving them the chance to start fresh with you. How many times? The Bible says 70 times 7…indicating that we just need to start with forgiveness and not wait to be begged into it by the “guilty” party.

Empathy isn’t easy at times. In the next post, I will share some fun things you can do to help your kids become more empathetic.

Teaching Your Kids God’s Principles

Periodically, aspects of secular culture invade Christianity. It’s well disguised, because it is often promoted by theologians and the ministers who are taught by them. Unfortunately, many of today’s theologians are thinly veiled agnostics or atheists and it impacts how they view scripture.

One of the most common ways of currently undermining scripture is by claiming that much of it wasn’t written to apply to us. The argument is that an Old Testament prophecy only applies to the specific group of people to whom it was given. Or that a New Testament epistle only applies to the original person or church to whom it was written.

On the surface this sounds logical. If the people in Nineveh hadn’t repented when Jonah preached, God would have destroyed them. The specific prophecy wasn’t about the country next door.

Paul’s letters to Timothy, Titus or Philemon did indeed contain specific instructions for those people. If he wanted Barnabas or someone else to do something specific, I’m sure he would have written them, too.

What these types of theological arguments often miss though, is that in addition to specific commands, God has underlying principles. He knew some things stay the same over hundreds or even thousands of years, but other things change. He also may not have cared to list each person who would ever be covered by His blessings or every single possible sinful activity in a category.

When God makes a promise or gives a warning to a specific group of people, there are often underlying principles that apply to all of His people. When God says He loves His people – even in an Old Testament book – I don’t need my name mentioned specifically to know I’m included. When God repeatedly says He detests lies and lying, He doesn’t need to list every possible way a person could lie or obfuscate the truth for the principle to be obvious.

This rejection theology also ignores the fact that almost as quickly as scripture was written down, it was passed among the people to learn what God wanted them to do. They didn’t seem to think most of the books weren’t written specifically to them and therefore didn‘t apply.

We have strong evidence the gospels and epistles were quickly passed from city to city and congregation to congregation and were considered to be inspired by God. There is no evidence they assumed the commands and principles didn’t apply to them, even if they weren’t the original addressee.

Why is this so important to teach your kids? Because ignoring biblical principles is one of the most common ways Christians currently use to excuse their disobedience and their sinful choices. Teens have always had a talent for this. (“God didn’t specifically say it was wrong to get high on cocaine.”)

The ignoring of biblical principles has seeped into the lives of adult Christians now and even into pulpits. Listen carefully for how many times someone teaching, preaching or having a conversation says something like, “I know the Bible says xyz, but…”. The “but” is usually followed by some version of it wasn’t meant for me to obey, because if God had known what I know, He wouldn’t have said that. Or even worse, implying that God did not inspire scripture.

Teach your kids to remember those conversations between Adam, Eve and the Serpent in the Garden of Eden. Remember the argument that seemed to sway Eve? Satan basically claimed, “God only told you not to eat the fruit because…” and of course, “You won’t really die.” He was trying to convince her God’s rules were not meant for her. He wanted her to believe her wants were more informed, more important, than God’s commands and principles.

Satan’s tricks haven’t changed in thousands of years. We just tend to forget what they are and to be watchful for them. Teach your kids to watch for those biblical principles and not to believe the argument that biblical principles no longer matter to God or apply to them.

Simple Ways to Point Your Kids to God

A recent Barna study found kids and teens who grew to be faithful, productive Christians as adults had been exposed to an average of about 2 hours of spiritual content a day.

Before you start to panic, the good news is that it doesn’t all have to be formal instruction (Note: Sending your kids to a Christian school, doesn’t remove the need for you, as their parents, to provide spiritual content for them.) Things like praying and having people over to eat count towards the total.

In fact, there are lots of rather simple things you can do to increase your kids’ exposure to spiritual content each day. Here are a few of our favorites.

  • Have faith conversations in the car. If you’re a parent, you probably spend a lot of time in the car with your kids. As you talk about life, make sure to point them towards God whenever possible. These spiritual discussions are a key factor in building a strong faith foundation.
  • Have drive by prayers. Don’t close your eyes if you are driving, but get in the habit of having short prayers motivated by things you see as you drive. Anyone can notice something and lead a drive by prayer for it.
  • Make time for family devotionals. You make time to read your kids lots of secular books and encourage them to read independently. Why? Because you have heard it will help them do better in school. Make an effort to read the Bible to your kids and encourage them to read it independently. Having a strong faith foundation is even more important than doing well in school.
  • Make worship services and Bible classes a priority. When you regularly skip church and Bible class for other activities, you send the message that those are things are good to do only if there isn’t anything better available.
  • Serve others and share your faith. Serving others and sharing your faith should be as much of your family DNA as your last name and your holiday traditions. You will initially do these things as a family. As your kids grow older, their individual service and faith sharing should be as common as what you do as a family.
  • Let your kids have their friends over. Hospitality is a major part of the home life of kids who grow up to be faithful Christians. It doesn’t have to be formal entertaining either. Letting them invite their friends to your house counts. So do visits by neighbors and extended family.
  • Do things with other Christian families. Don’t wait for your church to plan something organized. Meet another family at the park, take a hike with a group from church or grab a fast food lunch after church with others.
  • When you take your kids to a museum, look for sections covering cultures in the Bible. Many museums have sections with artifacts from the Egyptians, the Romans, the Assyrians, the Greeks and other cultures in the Bible. You may find lots of artifacts mentioned in the Bible like oil lamps, Torah scrolls, mummies (Jacob and Joseph’s bodies were mummified in Egypt), even some of the idols like Baal. (Note: In some museums, artifacts from Israel will be found in a section called Levantine or Levant culture.)
  • Take your kids outside. The Bible teaches us that creation points to God. Take your kids on a hike, to the beach, to an aquarium or zoo. Point out how amazing God is and how much He loves us.

Helping your kids build strong faith foundations and grow to their godly potential takes intentionality. Once you make the time though, the things you need to do are actually rather basic. Don’t let anything stop you from teaching your kids about God.

Top Tips for Raising Greed Free Kids

Have you seen the viral post claiming to have found a way to cure holiday tantrums over toys? Evidently, the mom struggled with her child having melt downs in toy aisles of stores because she wanted something from Santa right then.

The mom’s solution? Take a photo of the child holding the toy to “send to Santa”. She claimed the child immediately calmed down and often even forgot she wanted the toy.

As a Christian parent, I have so many issues with this supposedly wonderful idea. Beyond the implied lie to the child that she will indeed get everything she wants from Santa (the mother had no intention evidently of giving her child most of those toys), the solution feeds a greedy, entitled heart.

There are several more effective ways of avoiding the “child melting down in the toy aisle” scenario. In fact, doing these things consistently can help you raise kids who don’t become greedy at all.

  • Stay out of toy aisles and toy stores with your child. Showing kids aisles and aisles of things they didn’t even know existed, only tempts them to want those things. Why encourage greed? The only time a child should be on any toy aisle is to quickly choose a present for someone else. Even in those cases, discuss ahead of time which toy you will probably purchase, find it quickly and immediately move to the checkout or another less tempting section of the store.
  • Avoid commercial television, catalogs and other advertising. Advertising is another way children become convinced they need something they didn’t even know existed until they saw the ad.
  • Explain the family budget in age appropriate ways. Even young children can understand how hard their parents work to earn the money you have. They also need to understand that God wants us to give money back to Him and to help others first. After that, there are bills that must be paid. Your family must also save money for things like college, family vacations and to repair the car when it breaks down. The little money left is for fun things like toys. You never want your children to worry about money, but they need to understand there isn’t an unlimited supply either.
  • Limit presents to Christmas and birthdays. If they want anything between those holidays, they must earn and save the money for those items by doing extra little jobs around the house or saving their allowance. Regularly giving your kids toys for no real reason makes them think they may just get everything they want – especially if they make it clear it is something they want badly.
  • Never reward tantrums. Your kids need to understand the quickest way to make sure they never receive a toy is to pitch a tantrum about wanting it. For older children, you may have to make a similar rule about continual begging for an item.
  • Set a good example. If you constantly talk about the things you want, spend too many hours and too much money shopping for non essential items, you can’t expect your kids to act differently.
  • Make sure your family finds giving more rewarding than receiving. Make regularly serving others and sharing the things you have a family priority. Focus more on how your family can give than how your family can accumulate more things for yourselves. When unexpected money comes into your family, give God a portion first.

You won’t banish greed from your child’s life by snapping a picture of him or her in a toy aisle. You can, however, by helping your child grow a godly, generous heart. It takes more time and effort, but it’s actually effective.