The one quality I want my children to learn the most.

“It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.” L.R.Knost.

Above all else I want to teach my children about empathy. How to listen without judgement and simply hold the space for people to feel seen, heard and valued. Empathy has the power to change the world.

Becoming empathetic means becoming sensitive to how someone else is feeling. As a mother, my aim is to teach my children how to be empathetic above all else, as I believe it is one of the most important qualities we can learn. When we are empathetic, we are kind, we are thoughtful and we are aware of the people around us.

“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.” – Alfred Adler

Empathy teaches our children not to judge others. It helps them gain awareness of how others are feeling around them, encourages understanding and most importantly how to be kind. It is a way of creating true connections with people and making the world a more loving place.

‘Mum: I’m buying these rubbers and pencils for the last time. Don’t lose them. The child smiled knowing he had a new gift for his poor classmate.’ @empathystories.

A Wall Street Journal article titled ‘Empathy by the Book: How Fiction Affects Behaviour’ explains that books with characters that need empathy due to somehow being unique or different, can help drive the message of empathy home for our children. As parents, this can also help us explain what empathy is in a subtle way and open up dialogue for us to discuss further. If you’re anything like me, stories whether they are fiction or not, create strong feelings and long lasting impressions. Atticus Finch in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ said “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” which, I believe sums up empathy quite nicely.

I recently came across an article on with a large list of fiction PICTURE books that were based around characters that needed empathy. Here were a few of my favourites from that list: (These books would be appropriate from ages 2 to 9 years)

The Invisible Boy – By Trudy Ludwig.

Life changes for this little boy who feels invisible when another boy starts in the class and he begins to feel like he matters.

Hey, Little Ant – By Phillip and Hannah Hoose

A little ant begins a dialogue with a young boy about just because he’s small does it mean he does not matter or that his needs are inconsequential.

The Hundred Dress – By Eleanor Estes

A young girl called Wanda shows up in a blue dress everyday to school. She tells her classmates that she has one hundred blue dresses at home, but her classmates begin to tease her for it. Maddie one of the classmates begins to think that she should stand up for Wanda, that’s when they learn more about the story.

What’s wrong with Timmy? – By Maria Shriver.

A little girl Kate immediately notices Timmy looks a little different to others in her class as he has a bent leg and different facial features. This sparks conversation with Kate’s mum about children with disabilities and aids Kate’s emerging comfort playing with Timmy. This story respects Kate’s thoughts, feelings, fears and concerns around coming across physically and mentally challenged people. It also explains why children don’t need to be anxious or afraid and why it is important that we respect everyone no matter how they look or act.

Studies show that learning the ‘skill’ of empathy varies dramatically from one child to another, children as young as 2 can display obvious signs of this by showing concern for someone else being upset. It is a fostered skill that can be learned over time.

In an article written by Sheri Madigan, (Assistant Professor, Child Development, Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute.) outlines strategies to promote empathy in children. Here were my two favourites:

1.     Modelling empathy from us as parents, by acknowledging, showing understanding and sympathy for how another person is feeling ‘I can see you are upset by this…’

2.     Connect feelings, thoughts and behaviours. Help children understand ‘Cause and Effect.’ Sophie is upset because Shelly took her toy, what could we do to make Sophie feel better?

This is where stories come into it too as a great learning tool, (such as the stories listed above.) Stories create opportunities for dialogue around topics. ‘Cause and Effect’ in stories are perfect for teaching empathy.

To read these articles referenced – links below: