Teaching Kids to Show Empathy

by Jim Daly

Empathy hasn't always been at the top of the list of qualities I'd hoped to pass along to my sons. Not that I thought it was insignificant. It's just that when considering the larger lessons of life, empathy hasn't always been on my radar — at least not as much as faith, integrity and the fine art of wrestling on the living room floor.

But a complete picture of biblical manhood means responding to the emotions of others thoughtfully and empathetically. "Rejoice with those who rejoice," wrote the apostle Paul. "Mourn with those who mourn" (Romans 12:15). While I might like to shield my sons, Trent and Troy, from the "mourn" part of that verse, our lives have taken a different turn. In recent months, we've journeyed through two tragedies in our extended family, and my sons have experienced firsthand the difficulty and importance of walking alongside those who are hurting.

As I lead my sons, I'm learning that while empathy (the emotional understanding) comes with maturity, we can still help our kids respond to others' pain in appropriate ways. Here are some ways I've used to guide my boys:

Teach them to acknowledge pain. Expressions of sorrow can make kids feel uncomfortable, and they may try to turn an awkward encounter toward lighthearted conversation. That might be OK if a friend just dropped a pass in a flag football game, but not OK if he's just learned that his parents are getting a divorce.

Help them remember that pain is personal. When kids learn of someone's pain, it's normal for them to try to find a point of commonality with the person's plight. But loss and suffering is very personal. Remind your kids not to minimize someone's pain by comparing it to their own experience.

Let them wade through the awkwardness. Life rarely follows the pattern of a Hallmark card. It's OK to stumble over words or even miss the mark. It's OK to simply be present and offer a listening ear. The effort will be appreciated.

My sons were given an opportunity to put some of these lessons into practice during a recent trip to Florida to see their cousin Ethan. Our nephew was born with only two chambers of his heart. The boys played wonderfully together, and Trent and Troy came to appreciate that Ethan simply enjoyed their company. By empathizing with Ethan — not being intimidated by his condition — my sons helped him feel like just one of the boys.


This article appeared in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Thriving Family magazine and was titled "Wrestling with Empathy." Copyright © 2012 Focus on the Family. ThrivingFamily.com.


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