help your child expand his circle of concern with these tips

Children’s brains are hard-wired for empathy. Research suggests that most humans have an innate capacity to step into another person’s shoes and respond to their emotions.

The real question, says child psychologist Richard Weissbourd, is not whether kids are kind but to whom.

“Almost all kids are kind to somebody and have empathy for somebody,” says Weissbourd, co-director of Harvard’s Making Caring Common project. “The real work is getting them to be kind and empathetic to people outside of their immediate circle of concern,” including people of various races, nationalities, ages, and abilities.

This effort, says Weissbourd, “is important as a kindness matter but also a justice matter. Kids develop a clear and sturdy sense of justice as they take the perspective of people who are different than them.”

Tip 1: Put Other People On Their Radar

For young children, expanding their circle of concern begins with “putting other people on their radar,” says Weissbourd. It’s easy for kids empathize with people they are close to, such as family members and close friends. But parents get them in the habit of noticing people outside of this circle and seeing needs that others might have.

As a starting place, “point out the kid on the playground who may not be playing with any of the other kids,” says Weissbourd, or ask your child to tell you about a new classmate — and then talk about how to welcome them.

As a general rule, parents should shield young children from television news, which often contains disturbing images that they are not yet able to process. But picture books are an ideal way to both expose children to diverse cultures and to talk with them about struggles people face locally and globally. These three book lists — curated by Common Sense Media, National Public Radio, and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center — are a good place to start. While reading, pause to ask questions such as, “How do you think she feels right now?” or “What do you think he needs?”

Tip 2: Talk Through Discomfort

Children are sometime wary when they encounter people who look, sound, or behave differently than those in their immediate circle. And young kids sometimes ask questions or make statements that parents find awkward or embarrassing, such as “Why is she in a wheelchair?” “How come he talks like that?” or “That’s a funny-looking outfit!”

“Don’t come down hard on your kid” for sharing these reactions, says Weissbourd. Instead, listen empathetically and talk through their questions. Ultimately, he adds, “the best way to assuage children’s fears is to engage [those we meet] in a very normal way.” In other words, children take their cues from adult reactions.

In the Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood episode “Daniel’s New Friend,” Daniel has lots of questions when he meets Chrissie, who uses braces to help her walk. The episode’s “strategy song” provides simple language parents can use to help children expand their circle: “In some ways we are different; in so many ways, we are the same.”

Tip 3: Give Kids Tools for Action

Kids and adults alike are “more distressed when we feel helpless and passive — and more comfortable when we are taking action,” says Weissbourd. Because of their natural empathetic impulses, young children may feel distress when they see a classmate being picked on or when they hear about people who don’t have homes or enough food. Adults can help them “turn passivity into activity.”

For example, young children may not be able intervene independently when someone is hurt, but if parents encourage them to “tell a parent or tell a teacher,” children will develop the habit of acting when they see someone in need.

Likewise, when children help you choose food and clothing to donate to a community agency — or when they come with you to check on an elderly or sick neighbor — they tune in to the needs of others and turn their empathy into action. In this way, says Weissbourd, parents “create an expectation that this is what we do”; we expand our circle of concern and help others “because it’s the right thing to do.”

About Deborah Farmer Kris

Deborah Farmer Kris spent several years as a K-12 educator and as an associate at Boston University’s Center for Character and Social Responsibility. She is a regular contributor for MindShift and the mother of two young children. You can follow her on Twitter @dfkris.

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