feeding_fishBefore leaving for preschool this morning, my four-year-old checked on her jar of ladybug larvae, watered her little flower garden and shared a bagel with her little brother.  She may not know the term, but she was practicing empathy.

Empathy is a skill – one that we can cultivate and strengthen with practice. It requires us to imagine how someone else is feeling and then respond in a caring manner. Picture book author Anna Dewdney offers this wonderful definition: “Empathy is an understanding that other people have feelings, and that those feelings count.”

When kids care for living things – from babies to animals to plants – they exercise their empathy muscles. They learn through experience that 1) everything has needs; 2) these needs are not always identical; and 3) they can help meet those needs.

Here’s what I mean by that:

  1. Everything has needs: Care-taking teaches us that all living creatures are fundamentally connected.  We all need food, shelter and care. When those needs aren’t met, we cannot thrive.
  2. Needs are not always identical:  Caring for living things teaches children that we all have unique needs, and this informs their empathy. For example, we all need food, but the baby can’t share big brother’s sandwich quite yet. We all need love, but the cat may not want a hug. Some plants require full sun, and some blossom in the shade.
  3. I can help meet those needs: Children’s brains are hard-wired for empathy, so when we give them opportunities to act upon those feelings, we build their confidence as “helpers.”  As Harvard psychologist Richard Weissboard told me, kids and adults alike are “more distressed when we feel helpless and passive – and more comfortable when we are taking action.”

Here are some ways you can help your children strengthen their empathy muscles:

Tip 1: Teach Kids How to Care for Babies: Ever notice how a group of kids will suddenly gather around a small baby in fascination?  The organization Roots of Empathy brings babies into elementary school classrooms as part of their research-based empathy program. Facilitators help kids to observe the baby’s development and to label the baby’s feelings. If you have a new baby at home, find small, concrete ways for older siblings to help. Teach them to recognize how babies use their cries and expressions to communicate their needs.

My daughter was two when her baby brother was born.  At the suggestion of a wise friend, we stocked a small basket with diapers, wipes and a burp cloth and placed it at child level. When the baby needed a diaper change, it was her job to get the diaper and wipes. When she saw telltale white dribble after feedings, she would often yell “Spit-up alert!” and run to get a cloth. As she adjusted to a new arrival, we talked a lot about what her brother needed to grow up healthy and how she could be a part of that – and she loved to boast about what a good big sister she was.

If you have a new baby in the house or on the way, the PBS KIDS show Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood offers videos to help older sibling(s) get ready to welcome and care for the new arrival.  Your older child will learn some pointers from Daniel Tiger as he learns to love and care for his baby sister.

Tip 2: Teach Kids How to Care for Animals: Researchers have found a correlation between attachment to a pet and higher empathy scores. Pet care can provide a consistent “job” for kids – a meaningful, daily responsibility.  Even preschoolers can help fill a dog’s water bowl or give fish a pinch of food.

Right now, we have a jar of “pet ladybug babies” sitting on the windowsill.  My daughter found a patch of tiny yellow eggs on the back of a leaf and placed it in a jar. When they hatched, we read together about what ladybug larvae eat and went aphid hunting. She monitors their progress every day, wondering if they need a drop of water or more food. It turns out even baby bugs have distinct needs!

If your child wants to learn more about taking care of animals, the Wild Kratts Baby Buddies app is a great place to start. This app lets kids learn about animal science while they feed, wash and protect a baby elephant, cheetah, crocodile, zebra and aardvark.

Tip 3: Teach Kids How to Care for Plants: Gardening with young kids offers practical lessons in cause and effect. If you forget to water the flowers, they will begin to wilt; similarly, when you forget to “water” your friends and family with kindness, those relationships can wilt, too.

Recently, my daughter and I prepared a little patch of soil and scattered a few wildflower seeds.  Each morning, she waters them and waits. We talk about how seeds need good soil, water and sunlight. Like people, they start small and fragile, but with the right care, they will eventually blossom. When we offer care and empathy to those around us, we do our part to make the world a more beautiful place.

Cultivate your kids’ interest in plants and the natural world by following the adventures of “backyard explorer extraordinaire” Nature Cat. Kids will learn about seed dispersal in the game Seed Soaring and create an outdoor space in Park Builder!


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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