Activities to increase a child’s empathy

Activities to increase a child’s empathy

Unstructured summer days lie ahead. What activities can we use to enrich kids’ lives while having fun at the same time?

Strengthen a child’s empathy this summer and you may see these results in the upcoming school year*:

  • more relaxed physically, with lower levels of stress hormones
  • pay attention better and learn more effectively
  • fewer behavior problems, such as aggressiveness

Children learn empathy very well by doing acts of service.

For example, you make a donation to a food pantry and you discuss with your children about how others are hungry. Sheila Sjolseth shares her experience.

The service acts where I see the most distinctive difference in my boys are when we interact with others in our community—those acts where they helped someone in a completely different situation than their own.  By far, the acts of service that have been the most profound were when we helped:

  • the elderly in nursing homes
  • those who are experiencing homelessness
  • those who have great medical need
  • animals in shelters

Beyond taking in a neighbor’s trash cans or holding the door for someone–

–good as these are, empathy building means finding experiences where kids will see the needs of others and choose to meet them.

  • Prepare and take healthy treats to the fire department or police station.
  • Write a thank-you note or picture for the trash truck driver.
  • Make a chemo care package for a family friend.
  • Do an internet search for more ideas….

Here’s how:

  1. Get ready. Brainstorm who we want to help. Talk about how the person’s life is different from the child’s. What can we expect?
  2. Keep it short. Think 10 minutes (not counting prep time).
  3. Show them how. Model the behavior you’d like to see them copy.
  4. Let them help. Even let them take the lead as they get ideas and want to initiate service.
  5. Reflect and debrief. Sheila asks her kids: “Was it what you expected?  Why or why not?  How did your service help the other person?”  And I add, “How did you like doing it? What did the other person say or do to show how they felt?”

 Try it once and see if it’s worth the effort.

*Harris, P.L.  Children and Emotion: The Development of Psychological Understanding, 1989.

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