Teaching empathy at home

Experts say, with practice, children learn how to put themselves in someone else's shoes

Experts say, with practice, children learn how to put themselves in someone else's shoes

November 17, 2006|by TIFFANY ARNOLD

WILLIAMSPORT - An early lesson in empathy came when Chris Truax had to explain to her 4-year-old son, Blake, that his uncle was not "on a rock."

His uncle, Brett DeOrio, is a Marine serving in Iraq. He's been there since September.

"Just think about how good it will make him feel if you drew him a picture," Truax said to her son.

At 4, Blake is just starting to understand empathy, what it means to put himself in someone else's shoes. Children first begin to comprehend the emotion at the age of 4 or 5, said Dr. Mary Alvord, a child psychologist and former chairwoman of educational affairs for the Maryland Psychological Association. Children develop a more complex understanding of empathy by the time they are fifth-graders, she said.

For young people and grown-ups alike, discussion of empathy abounds around the holidays, as there's a stronger push to help others and people start talking about what they are thankful for.


But experts say teaching empathy isn't just about teaching children to be nice.

Studies have shown that children who lack empathy tend to have lower self-esteem, are more likely to be bullied and will have a difficult time making friends. As they get older, Alvord said they will have a harder time recovering when faced with adversity.

Conversely, children who are more empathetic tend to perform better in school, are less likely to do drugs and tend to develop stronger friendship networks.

The best way to teach empathy is to lead by example, Alvord said.

"I've never sat them down at the table and said, OK, kids, this is what empathy is," said Truax, a married, stay-at-home mother of two.

Instead, Truax said she'll explain why the family recycles or what happens to their old toys when they donate them to charity.

Or how their uncle in Iraq might feel when he receives care packages from his family.

Now, Blake and his 8-year-old sister, Jordyn, include "Uncle Brett" and "all the other soldiers in Iraq" in their bedtime prayers.

They also are helping out with a project at Jordyn's school, Williamsport Elementary School, to collect, sort and send donated items to troops serving in Iraq. Students at the school have spent the past two months sorting the items, which they will ship overseas later in the school year.

"It makes me feel kinda good," said Jordyn, a third-grader.

Washington County Public Schools has adopted the national character-building program Character Counts, said school board spokeswoman Carol Mowen. The program encourages school districts to include character-building exercises, such as the project at Williamsport, in their curricula. According to the Character Counts Web site, its program has reduced violence and has improved academic performance at schools nationwide.

Stephanie Bard, the fifth-grade teacher who started the project at Williamsport Elementary three years ago, said it has been a lesson in empathy for all of the students involved.

"Some of them aren't learning it at home," Bard said. "The school day is so full of facts and curriculum that I think we need to teach them to be good citizens, too."

Teaching empathy

Dr. Mary Alvord is a child psychologist and former chair of educational affairs for the Maryland Psychological Association. She offers parents a few tips:

Teach good listening skills and how to interpret body language.

Teach children to look for similarities in others instead of differences.

Allow children to help you with ordinary home tasks, such as chores, and involve them in community volunteering programs.

Be open to diversity.

Be a role model. Children learn to be empathetic by modeling the behavior they see.

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