Counselor Corner: Nine Habits To Teach Your Child Empathy

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Counselor Corner: Nine Habits To Teach Your Child Empathy
Heather Power

Sage Ridge School Counselor Heather Power shared valuable insights about habits to teach children empathy at a Sage Ridge School Parent Education Book Club discussion on "Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World" by Dr. Michele Borba. Power breaks down the nine habits that can help nurture empathy in children, starting with the crucial foundation of teaching emotional literacy. 

Habit One: Emotional Literacy

  • Model emotional expression yourself. Share your feelings openly and discuss how you cope with them constructively. If you make a mistake in expressing or reacting to an emotion, acknowledge this to your children and strategize how you could have handled the situation better. Teach your children that it is okay to feel a wide range of emotions and that appropriately expressing them is essential.
  • Encourage your child to identify and understand their emotions and help them recognize various emotions in themselves and others. Discuss what those emotions mean and how they can manifest differently.
  • Utilize everyday situations as teaching moments. When watching movies or reading books together, pause to discuss the characters' feelings and perspectives. Ask questions like, "How do you think the character feels right now? Why do you think they feel that way?"


Habit Two: Developing an Ethical Code

  • Model Empathy: Parents are a child's first and best teacher; therefore, we must model empathy daily. We can demonstrate empathy by actively listening to our children, understanding their feelings, and expressing compassion toward others in our community.
  • Encourage Kind and Caring Behavior: Actively encourage acts of kindness and generosity in our children. Whether helping a friend in need, volunteering in the community, or simply expressing gratitude, these actions reinforce caring values and contribute to a more compassionate society. 
  • People Who Care: Dr. Borba underscores the importance of instilling a belief in children that they are kind, which will propel them to reach out and help others. We do this by using nouns to describe our students as "helpers" rather than "helping; this switches our focus on their character rather than their actions.
  • Create a Culture of Connection: Cultivate supportive relationships within your family and community. By fostering a culture of connection, we provide our children with a sense of belonging and security, which forms the bedrock for ethical development.
  • Practice Digital Citizenship: Teach children responsible and empathetic online behavior. Communicating on screens removes the ability to experience the reactions of others to messages, making it easier to be unkind and more challenging to be empathetic. Dr. Borba emphasizes the importance of instilling digital empathy, teaching children to think critically about their online interactions and consider the impact of their words and actions on others. 

Incorporating these principles into our parenting approach can profoundly impact our children's ethical development. By fostering empathy, compassion, and moral courage, we empower our children to become caring individuals who contribute positively to the world around them.


Habit Three: Perspective-Taking

Dr. Michele Borba, renowned educator and author, presents a compelling case for the importance of empathy in her book. Central to Dr. Borba's thesis is introducing children to her third empathy habit: perspective-taking, which she calls the "gateway to empathy." However, she acknowledges that this can be one of the most challenging habits to instill in our children. Rather than solely focusing on oneself, perspective-taking involves stepping into another person's shoes to understand their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. 

  • Point out the Impact: When a child makes a mistake, point out the impact on others. This approach can work with children of all ages. If a toddler bites someone, ask how the other person feels after being bitten. When a teenager sends a mean text, ask how they think the other person felt receiving it. 
  • Switch Places: Ask the student to describe what happened from another person's point of view. You can stretch this perspective by introducing your child to different situations from their day-to-day experiences. Visit a nursing home, a homeless shelter, or a food bank and dialogue with them about what the experience might be for the people who rely on others for support in their daily lives and existence. 
  • Model the Perspective: Perspective-taking is a teachable skill children will most easily learn from observing their parents—presenting alternative narratives to experiences. Introduce disadvantages, such as blindfolding your child or wearing earplugs to block sounds, and ask them to complete simple tasks without one of their senses. By incorporating empathy-building activities into daily routines, parents and educators can empower children to become more empathetic individuals, equipped to navigate the complexities of human relationships with compassion and understanding.

Dr. Borba contends that by developing the habit of perspective-taking, individuals can bridge divides, build relationships, and ultimately lead more fulfilling lives.


Habit Four: Developing a Moral Imagination

Dr. Borba encourages exposing children to books that allow them to envision themselves in others' shoes and understand different perspectives. Books transport children inside the lives and minds of others whose lives differ from their own, elevating children from being sympathetic to empathetic. This foundational skill shapes individuals who prioritize others' well-being and actively seek to make a positive difference in the world around them. 

I encourage you to continue to read to your children. As they age, have family book clubs. Listen to audiobooks together in the car as you drive from one activity to another. Use these shared experiences to spark conversations with your children and as a valuable opportunity to introduce, test, and reinforce that your family’s values are raising kids who are empathetic and compassionate.


Habit Five: Self-Regulation

Have you ever seen the legendary Stanford University marshmallow study? Picture this: a group of four-year-olds is given a tempting choice—a marshmallow now or two if they wait a bit. Surprisingly, those who resisted temptation showed higher SAT scores later on. Fast forward forty years, and they still exhibit better social skills and confidence levels. Additional studies explored in Dr. Michele Borba's book compel us to educate and model self-regulation to our students as a critical ingredient to developing successful adults.

Learning self-regulation is a trial-and-error process, as it is not a one-size-fits-all approach; it requires patience and experimentation. Journaling or meditation might work for one person, while another might need exercise and energy expenditure. Dr. Borba’s “Unselfie” explores multiple approaches to consider, such as yoga or mindful breathing. Borba also suggests creating calming corners, making calming glitter jars, or turning to technology such as the Calm app to experiment with what works for you. The key to success is to have family conversations about self-regulation options BEFORE the need arises for utilization.


Habit Six: Kindness

What messages are you sending your children about the importance your family places on empathy and kindness versus achievement and ambition? Dr. Michele Borba’s book “Unselfie” details a Harvard study where 80% of 10,000 teens prioritize their happiness and achievement over the 20% that prioritize caring for others. Even for those who have yet to read “Unselfie,” I encourage you to take a moment to study the infographic compiled from the Harvard study data and process its meaning: Making Caring Common

Parents are children’s first and most influential teachers, so modeling kindness to your children is the most effective strategy. Recognize and praise acts of kindness—whether it is your child or others—to promote it’s importance to your family’s values. When someone is kind towards you, tell your child how it makes you feel. If your family is competitive, gamify acts of kindness and see who can complete the most acts of kindness. If you are low on inspiration for where to start, here is a link to a list of Acts of Caring you can consider. Being kind can take significant effort, and we might not always succeed. However, incorporating the concept and practice of kindness will benefit our children, families, and community and make it worth our effort.


Habit Seven: Think "Us" Not "Them"

Cultivate empathy through teamwork and collaboration: Working on shared goals creates a spirit and energy of “us” that Dr. Borba says “broadens [children’s] social spheres, which allows empathy to blossom.” Sage Ridge fosters this notion with our Pillar of Community which includes community service and other shared goals, such as our annual Field Day, Scorpion Days, or cheering each other on in a Coffee House performance. We also foster community experiences in our class meetings and advisory sessions. 

Your family can extend these classroom lessons at home. Host family meetings and introduce your child to the ideals of collaboration and teamwork. Plan a vacation as a team versus the parents huddled over their computers and planning out details; involve the children in research and decision-making. Create simple family projects like planting a garden, going on a picnic, or doing community service. Model how to work together and handle conflict. Meal planning is a necessary task that even the youngest of students can be involved in. Students can help select the meals, determine a grocery list, go shopping, and aid in cooking and cleaning. These necessary life skills create pivotal opportunities for them to observe and absorb the meaning of community, family and being a part of something bigger than themselves.


Habit Eight: Promoting Moral Courage

“Moral courage is a special inner strength that motivates children to act on their empathetic urges and help others despite the consequences,” Dr. Borba says. 

Your child’s ability to recognize situations and stand up for others might seem most beneficial for the child they are shielding, yet, long-term, a child with this ability is a greater predictor for their own success and happiness. Dr. Borba researched the difference between children who stand up against bullying, called upstanders, versus those who witness bullying and do nothing, called bystanders. Bystanders reported not knowing how to address bullying, fear of retaliation, and an overwhelming sense that someone else should or would address the issue. Interestingly, another study showed the more people involved in a bullying situation, the less likely someone will address the behavior. Dr. Borba refers to this phenomenon as the diffusion of responsibility. She counters that the promotion of moral courage is a crucial piece in children’s development that parents should address. 

Cultivating moral courage begins with family and parents. Borba details key elements to help you start this cultivation. Your parenting style must incorporate an expectation for social responsibility. You cannot expect your child to be socially responsible without first modeling the skill yourself. Parents are children’s first and best teachers. Dr. Borba details the author of The Lucifer Effect Philip Zimbardo’s S.O.S. Safety Smarts curriculum to teach students situational awareness and how to decide when to intervene or get help. And while I am still hopeful that you have read this book, I would like to share with you the specifics of this program: 

S - Safety First. Could someone get hurt? If so, get an adult.

O - Assess Options. Do I have the skills, options, or resources to address this situation myself?

S - Use your Sense detector. What are your gut and instincts telling you is the right thing to do? 

Dr. Borba continues to promote literary and cinematic opportunities to demonstrate moral courage. Read books and watch movies that foster conversations with your children about examples of moral courage. Dr. Borba suggests many in her book to get you started. The notion of courage has nothing to do with size and strength, but the willingness to do what is right when there is nothing to be immediately gained.


Habit Nine: Growing Changemakers and Altruistic Leaders

Exposing your children to the world can be scary. We think we are preserving their childhoods. Dr. Borba encourages us to expose children to larger societal needs, and this can lead your child to find a passion or cause that concerns them and mobilizes them to act.

Brainstorm and plan with your child how they can be a changemaker for a local or societal need. Guide, but do not lead, a discussion with your children about what you observe as opportunities for change. Allow your children’s thoughts and opinions to lead them to having agency in the process.

If your family struggles to get started, Dr. Borba encourages the idea of “start with one. ” Identify one person in need of assistance and empower your child to have a face-to-face experience of helping that person. This personal experience can embolden your child to want to flex their “helping muscles” with larger projects. Kids need to feel they are able to make positive changes and inspire change in themselves and their community.

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