“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” – Desmond Tutu

The early childhood years are a “prime time” for children to develop and use empathy skills. At this stage of development children are increasingly aware of the actions and emotions of others. Most importantly they are beginning to truly care about how friends feel. This often arises from a deeper understanding of their own feelings, which allows them to reflect on how others might feel. As you well know, empathy is a skill that takes conscious nurturing. Happily, most four, five and six year olds are eager to learn how to be a good caring friend.

Friendships Grow Empathy Skills

Young children are at the delightful stage of development when they discover the joy of playing with others in a cooperative manner. They are more willing than ever to listen to each other and respect each other’s ideas and feelings. They have learned (sometimes the hard way) that bullying or playing alone are just not much fun!

A major factor in friendship building at this stage is self-confidence and the ability to communicate. These are gifts that come from your child’s very first and most important friendship…her friendship with YOU.  

Children who have learned through family interactions how to communicate ideas and feelings are more confident when they enter school and make friends easier.

Young children are building a “vocabulary of feelings” that allows them to express their own feelings and listen to those of others. Listening and expressing are key skills in empathy. Through these two core skills children learn how to notice and accept the differences between themselves and others. It is a huge development at this age to realize that not everyone thinks and feels the same as they do! From that momentous realization comes the skills of kindness, respect and responsibility.

“That was kind of you!”

What is kindness to a young child? Kindness is appreciation … of everyone and everything.  It is a feeling of receiving and giving soft tenderness, warm caring, positive attention and listening. It is natural for most children to offer kindness to animals or pets, a special doll or stuffed toy.  This is a great place to start! But in the early years children learn to offer kindness to each other through your own example.

Use the word “kind” or “kindness” to label an action when you notice your child doing something kind for a friend. You might say, ”You made Sonia smile when you shared your book with her. That was kind of you.” Read books that inspire children to talk about a character’s feelings. For example:  Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst or Arnie and the New Kid by Nancy Carlson. Invite your child to express how she thinks the character feels. Ask her to suggest a “kindness action” someone could make to help the character.

“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all we ever have.” – Margaret Mead

Feeling Empathy and Feeling Responsible

Responsibility comes in many forms. It could be for practical things such as putting toys away, or the tops on their markers, or being careful around a sister’s drawing.  These actions take empathy because children begin to understand that by not taking these actions they affect others ability to play too. Of course, responsibility is also about social-emotional behaviors like being responsible for their actions, using good manners, having self-control with their emotions, and being aware of other’s feelings.  When you give your young children responsibility they learn to respond with caring.It is a skill that instills in children a sense of their own maturity. As they demonstrate their ability to be responsible… their social skills increase by leaps and bounds.

Caring for Self and Others

Empathy also means caring and respect. When you show someone respect you do so because you care about them and their feelings. Respect is not something you do just because someone tells you to. It is something you want to do because you care to do “the right thing” for another. Through empathy children learn how to care.  They notice how they feel if someone is caring towards them. So they want to do that for others. We can teach the behaviors of manners but they have to be rooted in the emotional experience of caring. Teach children how if feels to care and you won’t have to teach them how to respect. It will be a natural outflow of their feelings of empathy for others.

Model the Caring, Empathy and Kindness

Perhaps most importantly, it is your own actions and the adult in a child’s life that models the behavior we want to see in them. If you are gruff with children, they will be with others. If you speak unkindly, they will too.

Be kind and caring with children. Use words to describe what you are doing and saying. Tell children how it feels when you are being kind and caring. This is essential. 

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” – Dr. Seuss