It’s Never Too Early To Teach Empathy
What is empathy and why is it essential to us as we support our young children?
Simply put, empathy is the ability to think and care about the feelings and needs of others. Empathy is at the root of what psychologists call “pro-social” behavior—behavior that people must develop in order to develop a conscience, build close relationships, maintain friendships, and develop strong communities.
Empathy also helps kids avoid bullying—likely the most worrisome social challenge school-aged kids face. Being able to think and feel for others can keep kids from becoming either a bully or victim. Empathy can also equip kids to stand up for others who are bullied, turning future passive bystanders into active ones. As a school principal, I saw first hand that kids who could took an active stand, advocating for and supporting one another, were the key to a healthy, bully-free community.
If we want a society that is inclusive, collaborative, supportive and generative, every citizen needs to cultivate the ability to consider and value another person’s point of view. As the world continues to grow smaller and more connected, this will be even more important for our little ones.
How do our little ones develop empathy?
The good news is children are empathetic by nature. All we need to do is nurture it in them. So, how does empathy develop? The roots of empathy are planted in nurturing care from parents and caregivers. From this care, children learn trust, warmth, intimacy, attachment and the beginnings of empathy. Children start to learn that they are distinct individuals and as they develop socially and emotionally and through their interactions with others. Through trial, error, and loops of interaction, they learn that they have emotions, that others have emotions and that we all have an impact on one another.
How can we support empathy development?
Joining adults or older siblings in prosocial behaviors—those that create a positive experience for others—helps kids build a foundation for empathy. Caring for animals by leaving no trace behind is a meaningful start. You can perform random acts of kindness like leaving May Day baskets for neighbors or turning rocks into smile-makers. Wonder together how the birds are faring as they await spring, then make bird feeders for the birds. These types of activities, especially when presented in an age appropriate and child-led way, provide a model for prosocial behavior that young children can learn and on which they can build.
Play like the animals
As educator and advocate for outdoor learning David Sobel reminds us, “Cultivating relationships with animals, both real and imagined, is one of the best ways to foster empathy during early childhood.” Because early childhood is a time in which children do not fully differentiate self from other, it makes them particularly able to identify with animals. No wonder children are drawn to animals, and that many beloved stories feature animal characters.
As parents and early educators, how can we support this play? Take young children outdoors and let them observe, wonder and pretend to be other creatures. For this very purpose, we start every Tinkergarten class with a movement song in which we pretend to be different animal friends. When children wave their sparrow wings or stretch their bullfrog legs, they use fantasy to connect to the creatures around them. Take it a step further and try activities like building a safe home for a bunny or a cozy den in which a teddy bear could hibernate. Young children are quite able to do such playful work. Even a child as young as two can consider the needs of bunny or bear friends. What exciting evidence that the potential for empathy is there and ours to nurture!
National Day of Empathy
We wrote this on a “National Day of Empathy,” created alongside Project Empathy, a VR film series that explores what it means to be human and a global citizen today. Although the important issues they tackle feel far from our focus at Tinkergarten, their incredible work could not make more clear the importance of empathy—the essential capacity needed by all people to build stronger selves and stronger communities.