What is Empathy?
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, empathy is:
the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.
In other words, empathy is the ability to understand the feelings and emotions of another person. It is the ability to “put yourself in their shoes” and try to understand what they are going through emotionally.
Why is Teaching/Modeling Empathy Important?
Why should we as parents and caregivers explicitly teach and model the concept of empathy? Because Empathy is a LEARNED trait. Everyone is born with the ability to feel empathy but many of us need to develop skills in order to understand and feel sensitive towards the feelings and emotions of others.
Ways to Teach Empathy
Talk About Feelings–Teaching our children about feelings, and how to name those feelings, is the most critical skill in developing their emotional intelligence. When you or your child are feeling a particular emotion, name it for them. Help them to understand when they are feeling joy, sadness, jealousy or anger. Once they understand these feelings in themselves, help them to recognize them in others. Practice role playing with them about how to react when people they interact with feel a certain way. My daughter has a My Mood, My Choices flipbook. This book not only teaches her to name her emotions but gives her some ideas for activities she can do to help change the emotion or celebrate it. She now gives suggestions to the rest of the family for things they can do when they are feeling a certain way. This is a great example of empathy.
Model Empathy–You are your child’s greatest teacher! Children are watching all that we do and often model the behaviors they see in us. It is important for adults to model empathy so that children can learn to grasp this important skill. Show empathy and compassion to the people you meet and do kind things for others. Most important (and sometimes the hardest), show empathy for the people living in your home. When your child is feeling emotional, try to empathize with them and remember what it was like when you were a child. When you are feeling a certain emotion, help them to empathize with you.
Help Others–Volunteering and helping people in need is a great way to help your children to develop empathy. Recently while serving lunch in the park to the homeless, a man came up to the backside of the table and asked for some water. The two adult volunteers he approached stood frozen, unsure of how to answer him. Turning to see this interaction, I jumped in and said, “Of course sir,” and grabbed him a bottle of water. My son said, “Mom you broke the rules, he is supposed to wait in line and get his lunch and water just like everyone else. I took both kids aside and said, “Did you see his face? He desperately needed water and I was in the power to be able to grant that basic need. Imagine how you would feel if you were desperate for water and I said you had to wait in line for 20 minutes to get it.” Our time volunteering gives us so many teachable moments in empathy and kindness.
Read Stories and Put Yourself in Their Shoes–Reading quality stories to your children (no matter their age) is a great way to help them to practice the skill of empathy. Throughout the story, encourage your child to “put themselves into the shoes” of the character and ask what they think the character may be feeling. We have a great list of books to help talk about empathy with your kids. Check out our Kids in Service Book Corner.
Practice Mindfulness–Teaching our children to be mindful is an important skill in helping them to get in touch with their own feeling and emotions. Learning to be mindful will then help them to learn to be compassionate and empathetic to others. Kids in Service has many resources for helping you and your family to create a practice of mindfulness in your home. Click HERE to find those resources.
The kids and I recently stumbled upon Leon Logothetis and his work in kindness. Leon is nicknamed the Kindness Guy and has incredible stories and adventures to share that all surround kindness. The kids and I started watching his show The Kindness Diaries on Amazon Prime (season 1, season 2 can be found on Netflix). We all LOVE this show and I have not seen an episode yet that has not left me in happy tears. It is a wonderful show to prompt rich discussions as a family around empathy, kindness and gratitude. I’d recommend it for kids ages 6 and up and most definitely for ALL TEENS and ADULTS!!
I just ordered got my hands on this book and can not put it down!! I highly recommend it for parents of ALL ages! Here is what the publisher says about it: Teens today are forty percent less empathetic than they were thirty years ago. Why is a lack of empathy—which goes hand-in-hand with the self-absorption epidemic Dr. Michele Borba calls the Selfie Syndrome—so dangerous? First, it hurts kids’ academic performance and leads to bullying behaviors. Also, it correlates with more cheating and less resilience. And once children grow up, a lack of empathy hampers their ability to collaborate, innovate, and problem-solve—all must-have skills for the global economy.
In UnSelfie Dr. Borba pinpoints the forces causing the empathy crisis and shares a revolutionary, researched-based, nine-step plan for reversing it.
Because of You–This website is for teens and it is a wonderful resource to show how their words and actions can affect other people. This site is full of videos and resources for parents and teens and a great way to discuss the topic of bullying and empathy with our teens. “By encouraging self-reflection and focusing on specific actions, our goal is to inspire this generation to create a more empathetic and inclusive culture around them.” –Beauseofyou.org
PBS Learning Media–This is another great resource for teens and parents. Here they have videos and resources that discuss empathy, gratitude, resiliency and kindness.
You, Me and Empathy by Jayneen Sanders is a great book for introducing young children to the concept of empathy. This simple and sweet story follows Quinn as he models empathy in many ways for the readers. This book The back of the book contains discussion questions and two pages of activities that you can do with your children to promote empathy, kindness and compassion. This sweet book would be great for ages 3 and up.
My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald and Freya Blackwood–This is the sweet story about an immigrant girl who feels lost in her new country. A girl in the park is kind to her and despite their language barrier they become friends. Slowly she learns the language with the help of her new friend and her new home does not seem as cold and scary.
Someone New by Anne Sibley O’Brien–This book is the story of 3 new children immigrating to America from 3 different countries. They come to school and do not speak English and the children in their class work to find ways to reach out to them. It is a beautiful story about even though we may seem very different on the outside, we have so much connecting us as humans on the inside.
A Chair for My Mother by Vera Williams is a great example that you can make a BIG difference right in your own home if you work hard and make sacrifices. The main character does come home with her mother to a house fire. This may be scary for some young children but is done in a gentle way and shows the love of the community and neighborhood and how they rallied around the family after they lost everything. This book is about family, love, kindness and hard work. I would recommend this book to ages 5 and up.
The Invisible Boy was written by Trudy Ludwig and illustrated by Patrice Barton. The Illustrations in this book are wonderful. Life is very gray and dull for Brian because nobody seems to notice him or include him. When a new child arrives in class, that all changes for Brian and slowly the illustrations change to full color as more and people start to notice him. This book is a wonderful example of how one simple act of kindness and a little empathy can make such a big impact on another person. I’d recommend this book to children ages 4 and up.
I am Human is another TREASURE written by Susan Verde and illustrated by Peter Reynolds. I LOVE this writer/illustrator team and have ALL of their books. Their books do such a great job of packing in a powerful message for kids while entertaining them with fun illustrations. I am Human focuses on all of the ways that make us human (the good and the bad). It touches on feelings, dreams, making mistakes, compassion, forgiveness and making good choices. This book would be great to share with ages 4 and up.
The Lorax is my FAVORITE Dr. Seuss book and one of my top 10 FAVORITE children’s books (I also love the original movie from the 70s). The story has an important environmental message told in a child friendly way. This book is a wonderful way to spark rich discussions about empathy with your kids. This book is wonderful for ages 3+.
This timeless tale about bullying is perfect for ages 6 and up and is a book EVERY child should hear. From the publisher: Eleanor Estes’s The Hundred Dresses won a Newbery Honor in 1945 and has never been out of print since. At the heart of the story is Wanda Petronski, a Polish girl in a Connecticut school who is ridiculed by her classmates for wearing the same faded blue dress every day. Wanda claims she has one hundred dresses at home, but everyone knows she doesn’t and bullies her mercilessly. The class feels terrible when Wanda is pulled out of the school, but by that time it’s too late for apologies. Maddie, one of Wanda’s classmates, ultimately decides that she is “never going to stand by and say nothing again.”
My children and I DEVOURED the book Wonder by RJ Palcio!! It is a fictional story based on a real life experience that happened to the author, R.J. Palacio. This book has endearing characters and the book shifts from one character to the next so that you get the different perspectives. This BEAUTIFUL book is filled with powerful messages of kindness, acceptance and being yourself. I believe this book is for EVERYONE ages 7 and up.
Fish in a Tree follows 6th grade Ally as she struggles in class to fit in and hide the fact that she can not read. Ally’s dad is deployed and their military life has led her to be enrolled in 6 schools in 6 years. It is easy to fall in love with the characters in this book and your heart struggles right along with Ally as she tries so hard to be like everyone else. If you enjoyed Wonder, you will definitely like this beautiful story about celebrating who you are and the gifts that make us all different. This book would be great for ages 8 and up.
The kids and I are currently reading The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden. This is a tough book and will inspire a lot of rich discussion about empathy, courage and kindness. The book is about a seventh grade girl named Zoey who has a lot of responsibilities and worries for such a young girl. As Zoey tries to navigate her unstable home life and the challenges of middle school her teacher forces her to join the debate club. This will change her life in more ways than she ever imagined. This book heartbreaking and challenging book would be great for ages 10 and up.
Celebrating birthdays is such an important ritual for children. They love to gather with family and friends, eat party food, play games, open presents and blow out the candles on their birthday cake. Some families are choosing to transition the theme of their child’s birthday from one of GETTING to one of GIVING.
Some families are asking for donations in lieu of birthday gifts for their children’s party. The child then delivers the items collected to the food pantry or animal shelter. This is a wonderful concept but can be difficult for many children. You may want to ease in to this concept with having a service project be an activity at the party or asking folks to bring a smaller gift and a donation from their cabinets for the local food pantry.
Here are some ideas that you and your child may incorporate for their next birthday gathering to spread a little love and kindness in honor of their special day.
For All Ages
Donate Items to Goodwill or a Local Shelter (one for each year)–Every birthday and Christmas, my children donate one item for each year they have been on this planet. This practice of cleaning out their spaces and donating their gently used toys, books and games is so important as we teach them to let go of things that are no longer serving them. My husband and I join in on this activity and since we are a bit older we include paper purging (catalogs, magazines and old bills) into our number.
Recycled Party--My son once had a birthday of all wrapped hand-me downs. People brought gently used toys, games and clothing items as gifts. Zach loved his “new to him” gifts and nobody had to spend any money. It was a great lesson in reusing and reducing waste.
Food Pantry Party or Animal Shelter Party–Food pantries and Animal Shelters are always looking for non-perishable donations. Asking guests to bring donations in lieu of gifts or a canned good with a small present is a great way to organize this party. Make a collection spot where everyone can see the items. Have the children count the donated items at the end of the party and have the birthday child thank everyone and share where the donations will be going. Make a big deal of the Donation Day for your child and make sure to take a picture of them donating the items to the pantry or shelter (send it to email@example.com for them to be featured on our website).
Birthday Box Party–Not every child in our country has the chance to celebrate their birthday. Consider asking party goers to bring the contents to make a birthday box in lieu of a gift. During the party, the group can work to assemble the birthday boxes and your child can go and donate them to the local food pantry. Check out our post on birthday boxes for more information.
Party with Seniors--Who doesn’t love a party? Many residents at your local nursing home would LOVE to celebrate a birthday with your child. Contact your local nursing home and see if this is a possibility and if there are any food restrictions. Invite some of your children’s friends, bring some balloons, games to play (they LOVE bingo with prizes) and bring some treats to share. This is a great way to spread some love and kindness.
Book and Pajama Drive–Have each party guest bring their favorite children’s book and/or a pair of new pajamas and donate them to the Pajama Program. For this party you could have everyone dress in their PJ’s, bring a stuffed friend (if they are young) and read your child’s favorite story to all of them. Older kids can enjoy a sleepover party with this theme.
For Older Children
Sole Hope Shoe Cutting Party–Sole Hope is a wonderful organization that helps to make shoes out of old jeans for children in Uganda. These shoes prevent the children from getting painful jiggers in their feet. Jiggers make it difficult to walk and thus the children can’t perform their daily chores, walk to school or play with friends. Organizing a shoe cutting party is a great birthday alternative. Order the kit here, have everyone bring a $10 donation toward the shoe cutting kit cost and a pair or two of old jeans (no holes) . Put on some music, chat while you work and think about all of the children you will be helping on the other side of the world.
Make Dignity Bags or Homeless Bags–Being a homeless has many challenges and homeless bags can make life a little easier. These bags contain hygiene items, snacks, uplifting messages and so much more. Dignity bags can make life a little easier for homeless women. Consider organizing a Homeless Bag party where everyone brings items to contribute and then you assemble them together. Check out our post about Homeless and Dignity Bags here.
Blanket Party—Project Linus is always looking for blankets for children in crisis. Making no-sew fleece blankets is a great project for a birthday party. As host, you can provide the blanket materials or in lieu of gifts have each child bring the supplies they need to make a blanket. This would be a great slumber party idea! Click here for more information.
Other Service Project Activity Ideas
Paint Kindness Rocks
Make placemats for Meals on Wheels
Make Seeds of Kindness
Have a Kid Knits Party
The Holiday Cards for our Military Challenge is a non-profit from NH that collects and sends holiday greetings to our deployed military. Last year they collected over 50,000 cards from all 50 states. Kids in Service participated last year and donated 35 cards, this year we are hoping to collect 500!!
In order to meet our BIG goal, we need YOUR help. Write out a holiday card (or make your own) and thank a warrior for their service to our country and wish them a happy holiday. Send your completed holiday cards to Kids in Service, PO Box 4095 Windham, NH 03087. All cards need to mailed in or delivered by October 25th so we can get them in for the Halloween deadline. Locally we will be collecting cards at our Kids in Service Table at Windham’s Harvest Fest on Saturday, October 19th.
This service project does not take a lot of time, is perfect for ALL AGES (everyone who can hold a crayon) and will make such a big impact on the person who receives your card.
Thank you for helping to brighten up the holiday of our wonderful military!
A few years ago my Kids in Service group made Seeds of Kindness. After reading the book, Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Deed by Emily Pearson, I was inspired to find a simple way for the kids in my group to start their own Pay it Forward project.
Each family was given this cute little smile bag that I found on Oriental Trading and some emoji magnets (also from Oriental Trading). The kids made happy pictures with uplifting messages on them, “You are Special!” “Thanks for Being YOU!” and enclosed the magnet inside of their folded up picture. They were then encouraged to pass out their Seeds of Kindness to the people that they encountered over the summer.
Will you and your family accept this mission of KINDNESS?
Your Mission: Create simple Seeds of Kindness to help brighten the day of the people you meet when you are out and about in the world.
Supplies: paper, drawing materials, a bag to hold the Seeds of Kindness so you can take them on the go (a ziplock works great).
Optional Supplies: fun magnets, a dollar scratch ticket, single stemmed flowers, a happy eraser, a pretty stone, $5 gift card for a coffee (the possibilities are endless).
Procedure: Work as a family to create happy and uplifting drawings. Everyone who can hold a crayon without eating it can participate in this part! Write uplifting messages on the drawings (You are Special, You are One of a Kind, Thanks for Being You, You are going a Great Job, Thanks for Being a Light in this World, Thanks for your Smiles etc.). Fold up the drawings into small squares (“seeds”) and put them in a bag of your choice so you can take them with you on the go.
Optional: Add a fun magnet, a dollar scratch ticket, a flower a happy eraser, a pretty stone or a $5 gift card for coffee or lunch to the seeds.
Keep the Seeds of Kindness with you in the car or while you are on the go and when you see someone who has gone above and beyond or someone who looks like they could use a pick me up, give them a Seed of Kindness. Perhaps the mailman looks a little blue, the woman at the checkout was extra friendly or a mom with screaming children looks like she could use some kindness. These Seeds of Kindness are meant to be spread around and given to EVERYONE. My family loves to give them to the toll attendants (along with a $5 gift card at the Holidays) and their reactions are alway priceless.