We want to teach our children so many things, to instill the values most important to us in them. One of the key relational skills many parents wish to impart on their youngsters is empathy. The capacity to “read” other person’s feelings followed by an offering of comfort, support and understanding. Parents receive different advice meant to help develop empathy in their children, such as telling their child they are sorry, instructing them to shake hands after a conflict, write an apologetic note, praise them when they respond with empathy, and read them books about kindness and sharing.
However, these efforts to teach empathy sometime end up taking energy away from how children learn empathy the best - through relationships. Children learn empathy best in real and genuine relationships with caregivers who regularly offer them empathy.
As with almost every skill, children learn best through daily practice and by watching others, especially the most important adults in their lives who practice these skills. Furthermore, just like adults who struggle with being empathetic all the time, children will vary in their ability to show empathy. For example, a toddler may plant a kiss on her baby brother’s head, only to hit him a few moments later. Nevertheless, it is during the moments in which they are feel frustrated, angry, sad, upset, or scared and we offer comfort and sensitive caregiving, that our children develop their empathetic capacity with true compassion and understanding being nurtured.