Little Lessons: Raising empathic children

This youtube video about empathy explains the concept of empathy really well, and humorously too. It mentions that the four qualities of empathy are:

  1. perspective taking
  2. staying out of judgment
  3. recognising emotion in other people
  4. communicating that emotion

I think more often than not, I end up being a bit like the goat – taking comfort in my own safety net, avoiding making myself vulnerable, and silver-lining other people’s dark clouds.

Empathy is a key ingredient for success in all aspects of life, especially inter-personal relationships. But what really is empathy? This article on the 6 habits of highly empathic people on the Greater Good website defines it as:

empathy - a definition

I was convicted about three things from reading that article:

1) I should get out of my comfort zone and develop greater curiosity about people, especially those who are very different from me. Sometimes I allow fear to hold me back from striking up a proper conversation, and after a few steps forward I tend to retreat.

2) Seek to understand instead of judge.

3) Listen wholeheartedly, and avoid dishing out quick solutions and advice.

As I work on honing my empathic skills, I also hope to build that in my children.

Children who are empathic tend to do better in school and in social situations. Empathy also reduces aggression and is seen as the solution to bullying and other anti-social behaviour, as evidenced by Roots of Empathy, an evidence-based classroom program that has shown significant results in reducing levels of aggression among school children while raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy. Simply by allowing school children to observe the growth and development of an infant over an entire school year.

It’s definitely a good skill when it comes to conflict resolution. Vera and JJ now fight multiple times a week. Over the skate scooter, over who gets the last chocolate or biscuit, over who pushes the lift buttons… Anything and everything is a potential minefield.

I recently noticed that Vera shows a much greater level of empathy to baby J than to JJ. Whenever baby J cries, she would hurry over to him, coo at him, and offer him his soother or rock him if he’s on his rocker. She even tries to read his cries, like “you’re hungry huh…” or “you want your pacifier, is it?”

With JJ, it’s a different story. She’s inconsistent towards him – at times deciphering his wants and needs and helping him address those; at times ignoring him altogether.

I’ve praised and acknowledged her whenever she demonstrates some level of goodwill and kindness towards her brother. And vice versa with JJ. But on some days, both are unable to give in, JJ tries to grab something or unknowingly pushes Vera too roughly, and BOOM, tearfest.

I’ve had to step in and play mediator at least three times the last week. (I usually try to let big sister negotiate with him on her own, but I do step in when things go downhill.) I would bend down, eye to eye with the perpetrator or the person who looks most hurt at the moment (read: bawling loudly), and ask for a brief description of what happened. Whodoneit usually doesn’t matter to me as I want them to recognise that both are at fault.

Both have been selfish. Both have done wrong.

Sometimes (when I remember to), I would ask big sister and JJ this question: “How do you think (the other) feels after you pushed him / shouted at him / took his toy?”

“Sad” come the usual reply. Or “angry.” Sometimes…Silence.

Thankfully, there are ways to help our little ones develop and learn empathy. Here are some that I try to practise at home regularly:

Empathise with your child – acknowledge their emotions; don’t belittle them. “I know you really want to tie your laces yourself.” Or “Are you feeling angry because it was your turn to press the lift button but little brother pressed it instead?” Let them know that it isn’t wrong to feel upset, rejected, lonely, or afraid. But teach them to express these big emotions verbally, and give them ideas to cheer themselves up such as hugging their lovey or playing with their favourite toy.

Give them opportunities to hear each other out. Practise talking about your emotions in front of them too.

Read books about feelings such as My Many Coloured Days by Dr Seuss and The Very Cranky Bear.

Use pretend play – We’ve been discovering the world of pretend play lately, and I find it’s really useful for exploring even the most difficult, hard-to-speak-about emotions. Any soft toy can take on an identity and personality of its own so be creative and dramatic!

Last but not least, kids learn the most by how they’ve been treated. By us, the parents. When they are upset, cranky, or frightened, do we shut them out or scold them for feeling those emotions? This is a reminder for myself too, and I hope we learn to treat their feelings with care, so that they too can grow to be caring, sensitive, and empathic individuals.

Do you have a suggestion on how to encourage empathy in our children? I would love to hear your views and experience.

This is week 15 of the Little Lessons series, which runs on the blog every Thursday. Do grab our badge and link up your little lessons / learning activities below!


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Kids love to learn, so how can you help to grow that love?

I attended a ‘Loving Literacy’ workshop at September 21 recently, in conjunction with their 15th anniversary. You may want to read about my first encounter with the educational resources specialist.

We had a fun and engaging speaker in the form of Victoria Carlton, founder of International Centre for Excellence in Perth. She shared with us some useful tips on how to encourage our children on their life-long learning journey…

1. Create a conducive learning environment 

Children learn best in an environment that’s stress-free, fun, and filled with love. Love? Yes, it’s like a brain booster. Kids thrive on love, and knowing that they can’t lose this love no matter how badly they fare gives them the confidence to explore, learn, and make mistakes.

Also, remember that young brains need good doses of daily exercise and sufficient sleep to function at their best. And may I add a good wholesome breakfast 😉

It sounds pretty obvious, but I think we tend to overlook these things sometimes. 

2. Encourage journal-writing

The practice of journal writing actually increases your intelligence! How so? Well, it requires you to reflect on your experiences, helping you to learn from them and remember them better. So…don’t wait. Encourage your kids to keep a journal as soon as they start writing.

I suppose blogging counts too? But, there’s something timeless about putting pen to paper, and writing in your favourite notebook…don’t you think?  

3. Read good books  

I took the moon for a walk

Foster a love of reading good-quality fiction from a young age. (Better still, model it yourself!) Fiction books help to create a secondary world where kids can pick up creativity and problem-solving skills. We should pick out books that are well-written and creative, and try to read them aloud to our children.

Here are some of her suggested reads for children:
Falling Angels, Colin Thompson
I Took the Moon for a Walk, Carolyn Curtis
T is for Terrible, Peter McCarty
Fantastic Mr. Fox, Roald Dahl
The Toymaker and the Bird, Pamela Allen

Do you have a favourite book to share?

4. Give them room …

To be different. To learn at their own pace. To do things unconventionally. To invent. To tear apart (within certain limits of course).

How many times have you told your child to color an apple, red, and a leaf, green? I’ve done that countless times! When they are older, they will learn the right order of things anyway, so give them room for creativity and let them enjoy making their own choices.

Every child learns differently. If you find yourself getting frustrated with your child and wondering why, perhaps it’s good to evaluate his or her learning styles, and changing our approach accordingly. In Victoria’s words, “each child is a gift to the world, and we need to find out how we can nurture this gift.”

It’s often tempting to compare our kids to others…whenever you face this, remember that your child in a unique individual with unique strengths and weaknesses, and it’s up to us to encourage them to discover their potential and  their own purpose in life.

5. Make learning an adventure!

While there is a time and place for rote learning and memorizing ABCs and 123s, kids learn best when they’re having fun! Bring them to experience the great outdoors. Turn everything into a game, such as ‘I spy with my little eye something that begins with ‘A’, and see how many things your child can spot. Or encourage them to write their own adventure novel, or make up their own song. Who knows? You might have a future writer/singer in the making.


As you can see, I enjoyed and learnt a lot from the workshop. Victoria also asked us to create our own story book as a family, and I thought that was a really cool idea that we could embark on when the kids are slightly older. 😉

How do you help your child develop a love and thirst for learning?

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