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.

Tweetable:  Do summer activities here to strengthen a child’s empathy and you might lower their stress hormones. Click to Tweet

Harvest time: of kids and carrots and character

seeds in handIn early Spring, when we tore open seed packets of carrots and pumpkins, the golden days of harvest  were far away. I like what Ann Voskamp says, “The seeds, they fall into my hand small, jewels. But to look at seeds and believe they will feed us? When…it doesn’t look like near enough. When it looks like less than a handful instead of a plateful, a year full, a life full. When it looks inedible.  These seeds, they are food? It looks like a bit of a joke. To hand someone seeds…and ask him to believe in a feast?”

Being mindful of the future feast in a child’s life

When kids are what we seed, it can help to take time from life’s busyness to recapture what our hopes and dreams are for their spiritual life. Here’s a visualization exercise:

  • What character traits do you want to see in them?
  • What character flaws will be holding them back?
  • Where will they turn for their inner guidance system?
  • What relationship will they have with a Higher Power?
  • How much self-awareness will they possess?
  • To whom will they turn for help and support?

sproutHonor the ordinaryness of everyday life

From the earliest years, when adults shape the entire life experience of infants and toddlers, through the child’s growth in self-awareness, conscience, and responsibility, we are modeling and teaching, listening and supporting.  But we don’t expect to see any signs of harvest yet.

 “A small thing is just a small thing. But faithfulness in small things is a very great thing.” (A. Carmichael)

“What would happen today if we saw all the not-enough, too-little in a child’s life to be but a seed? asks Ann Voskamp. “Small somethings growing into a more wonderful future. Believe it. All feasts began as seeds.”

tween boy whale watchingConversation starters for older children

  1. What do you want your life harvest to be?
  2. How do you know if you’re planting the right seeds to get you that harvest?
  3. Agree or disagree (and why): Some people think they’ll only get a harvest if they are successful or special.
  4. Someone said: “When you think about it—we cannot not produce a harvest.” What do you think that means?

Tweetable: A visualization exercise here clarifies the hopes and dreams we hold for a kid’s solid inner life. Click to Tweet

Serve-and-return dynamics in childhood spirituality

volleyballWith two nieces on top-ranked college volleyball teams (Hawaii and UCLA) I sat in a lot of gyms watching serves and returns.

Serve-and-return parenting

Psychologists sometimes use the term “serve and return parenting” to refer to face-to-face, back-and-forth interactions between caregivers and their babies. Science Journalist Paul Tough observes that these interactions create secure attachments and they motivate a child’s enthusiasm in practicing social interaction, speech and language.

toddler girl calmBut I also observe the same serve and return dynamics in the development of human spirituality, sparking growth in conscience and character.


Serve-and-return spirituality

Children experience the calm in the inner space of their human spirit that they need to incubate perseverance, tenacity, and the other significant character qualities. These character qualities then carry over into their everyday life.

From serve-and-return spirituality flows an ability to calm oneself– spiritual self-soothing, so to speak. This ability to calm oneself helps children persevere through problems and to begin seeing mistakes as opportunities for learning.

Take perseverance and tenacity, for example–

“In order for kids to have perseverance and tenacity in school later on, they need to start with self-regulatory abilities—the ability to calm themselves down, to focus on something for long periods of time, executive functions, as researchers sometimes call them,” explains Mr. Tough.

Parents know all too well that their child’s self-regulatory abilities, or lack of them, mimic their own. What do you do under stress? Are you easily distracted?

Besides modeling for them, we teach younger children through activities, and older children by listening and coaching. Parents contributed these examples below that have worked for their families. What’s working for you?

Activities to practice serve-and-return spirituality

Infant – age 3:  Hold the child in your lap when you’re meditating or praying to show them the habit of sitting quietly and mimicking what you do, followed by smiling, talking, laughing.

Age 4-6: Your bedtime rituals establish a family culture of serve-and-return. Your face-to-face, back-and-forth communication carries a message of unity and belonging: “These are the books, songs, chants, or prayers this family uses at bedtime and no other family uses the exact same ones. We belong to each other.”

Age 7-12:  Breakfast Club (can also be done in the car en route to school): Siblings (and adults) take turns going back-and-forth with each other for a short affirmation such as:

  • I wish you well in your book report today.
  • I saw you studying for your math test. You can relax because you are well-prepared.
  • I know you can handle anything that happens today.


  • Serve and return spirituality sparks growth in a child’s character and conscience. Click to Tweet
  • It pays to turn more attention to developing childhood spirituality. Three simple activities here. Click to Tweet 

The right kind of trouble for kids

Recently I was with a friend and her grandchildren for lunch at an open-air market, followed by a visit to a museum. The girls knew they were going to get a souvenir of our adventure together.

At the market, 8-year-old Sasha wanted a package of stars that glow in the dark. Her grandmother reminded her that she could get one souvenir, and that the museum had a great gift shop. Sasha insisted on getting the stars.

Of course, later at the museum store I walked with Sasha who began choosing from the array of wonderful items to buy, disappointed that she already had her souvenir. “That’s difficult,” I said, “what would have helped you make a better choice?” And we chatted about what she plans to do next time.

The right kind of trouble teaches how to handle frustration when the world doesn’t go your way.

Trouble helps children develop endurance. Endurance develops strength of character. Character strengthens our confident hope and this hope will not lead to disappointment. So it is exactly these teachable moments in which we want to be fully present with children.

Remain mindful—so that we stay connected. Be clear–so that we are spiritual navigators, teaching and modeling right speech, good intention, right action.

Notice and label when you are having trouble.

Brooke Brogle shares her experience:

She said to her young children: “I am having trouble! I have tried three times to fix the vacuum and it is just not working! I am going to take a break. I will come back and try when I am feeling calmer.”

Guide young children through their frustrations.

“You seem so frustrated! I see that you have been trying to build that tower and it keeps falling down! Let’s have a snack and then try again together.”

At 19, a young woman completing her high school education had these wise words.

“I am thankful for every bad choice I ever made and every person put in my path to give me a hard time. I made many mistakes, but those same mistakes have made the person I am today. Life isn’t easy but it is worth fighting for.”

Tweetable: The right kind of trouble helps children develop endurance and endurance leads to strength of character. Click to Tweet 




One thing that will ruin your child’s life

If there is one thing that will ruin children’s lives, it’s greed. Teach them how to pull the plug on greed and you will have prepared them to thrive in the real world. –Mary Hunt

Mary Hunt, the “Everyday Cheapskate” offers timely advice, condensed here, on one aspect of character development.

Greed is the feeling of desire, of wanting everything you can think of.

Greed is like a very bad disease. It starts small and if allowed to grow it will take over your life. Greed will make you miserable. It causes temper tantrums and makes people self-centered and arrogant. It is very sneaky.

Children know that twinge of envy when their best friend shows a new phone. Or says really loud at lunch that Dad is buying a new car for their graduation gift. Multiply that feeling by 10 and you’ll have a good idea of what full-blown greed feels like. It is not good.

Greed is hazardous to their futures.

1157866_86004329 greed 2

The problem with greed is that it drives us to do things that are hazardous to our futures. Greed says it is OK to have everything we want now and to figure out how to pay for it later. Greed is something every child has to deal with and the sooner you can show a child how to defeat that enemy the better off and happier the child will be.

The antidote for greed is to be thankful for what you already have.

You prove your gratitude when you are willing to give away part of your resources. Everyone, no matter how young or how poor, has time, talent and possessions.

801960_30693474 greed 3

When children give to others it helps them to be grateful for what they have.

  • Help a younger child to read.
  • Visit senior citizens at a care facility.
  • Clean up and bring toys you don’t play with to a shelter or hospital.
  • Regularly give part of your allowance to a charitable or religious organization.

If you want to make sure your children are never defeated by greed, show them how to be givers.

Tweetable: Greed is like a very bad disease.If allowed to grow it will take. Here’s an antidote for your kids. Click to Tweet