Living our Humanist Values: Teaching Empathy to the Next Generation

Photo by guille pozzi on Unsplash

This article is part of series about the Ten Commitments to commemorate the 5th Anniversary of the American Humanist Association’s Center for Education.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, and it is a crucial humanist value. There are several effective ways to teach empathy to children, and finding the approach that works is important because empathy helps children understand and relate to others, which in turn can help them to build strong relationships, improve their communication skills, and become more compassionate and understanding individuals.

One of the key ways of teaching empathy to children is through modeling. Children learn by example, and parents and caregivers can demonstrate empathy by showing understanding and concern for others. For example, if a child sees a trusted adult listening attentively to a friend who is experiencing something difficult, the child will see empathy in action, as well as how having empathy for someone affects them. Additionally, parents can talk to children about their own feelings and the feelings of others, explaining the different emotions and how they can be expressed.

Another effective way to teach children how to be empathetic is through role-playing. Ask your child to help think up some different scenarios, such as someone who is sad or angry, and practice how they could respond. Then have them reverse the roles and think about how they would want someone to treat them with the roles reversed. Exercises like this can help them to better understand the emotions of others and think about how they would want to be treated in a similar situation.

It is important to provide children with opportunities to put empathy into action in their own real-life situations. Volunteering as a family can help children to understand the needs of others and develop compassion. Parents can also encourage children to be kind and helpful to others in small ways on a daily basis, such as offering to help a neighbor with a small task, or holding the door open for someone.

Empathy is also important in the discipline of children. Instead of punishing children for misbehavior, parents can try to understand the reasons behind their child’s actions. By taking a more empathetic approach, parents can help children to understand and learn from their mistakes, rather than simply being punished for them. This will also help children learn to understand misbehavior of their peers or siblings rather than jumping to tattling or retaliating, which can often escalate minor incidents unnecessarily.

In addition, it is important to teach children to understand and respect diversity, which can be done by exposing them to different cultures, religions, and ways of life. Children who are exposed to different perspectives, and are encouraged to explore the diversity in the world around them are more likely to be accepting and understanding of others.

Empathy is a beautiful humanist value that can be taught and nurtured in children through modeling, role-playing, real-life opportunities, and understanding and respect for diversity. Empathy can help children at any age to build strong relationships, improve communication skills, and become more compassionate and understanding individuals. Empathy can shape children’s behavior and attitudes towards others, and ultimately contribute to a more empathetic and compassionate society.