Encouraging Active Empathy

My daughter came home talking about a new girl in her class. Since being the new kid can be challenging, I want my daughter to be empathetic. I want her to sense the newcomer’s feelings of loneliness and introduce her to other friends. I want her to imagine what a newcomer doesn’t know and show her around. My hope is that – even if they don’t become close friends – my daughter will be someone who cares about how others feel and acts to provide support.

Empathy is a complex concept. Having cognitive empathy means that children have learned to take another’s perspective and thus can imagine what others might be experiencing. Emotional empathy means they feel an emotional connection with others. But for empathy to be meaningful, it also needs to provoke prosocial behaviors. When children recognize another’s thinking and share their feelings, their empathy should lead them to act in ways that provide care and support.

Increasing cognitive empathy is key to encouraging prosocial action. Researchers Laura Taylor and Catherine Glen noticed that intentionally bolstering children’s cognitive empathy helps them change how they think about outsiders. This increase in empathy leads to more open and accepting actions, such as welcoming newcomers to their lunch table.

One way to encourage cognitive empathy is to share information about those whom children might view as ‘outsiders’. Explore books with characters who move from one school to another or immigrate to a new country. Read stories about persons who are homeless or children with chronic illnesses. Ask them to imagine what these characters might be thinking as they experience being ‘new’ or ‘different’.

It’s also important to connect emotional and cognitive empathy. Psychologist Pooja Magha Nagar found that emotional connections aren’t enough to consistently prompt prosocial behaviors. Instead, children need to understand why another person feels the way they do. That means we need to talk about how a new child at school feels anxious because they don’t know how to find the bathroom. Or a recent immigrant feels frustrated because they don’t understand the bus schedule. Pointing to the cause of various emotions provides children with information they can use to act.

Parents can also Increase cognitive empathy by reinforcing children’s developmental appreciation for equity and justice. Between six and eight years, children come to see equitable treatment as a moral value. We can leverage that belief by helping them see the inequity in another’s situation and then working with them to find a way to redress that injustice. When a child understands that having a home is normative, learning someone else doesn’t have a home becomes an injustice they want to help fix.

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