When Laura Medcalf saw her three-year-old daughter, Kate, and other kids madly stamping on ants outside daycare one day, she knew it was time to pass along an important life lesson. Medcalf was only a year older than Kate when, hard at work on her own ant-killing spree, she recalls her mother explaining that all living things, big and small, belong here on earth and deserve our respect. So persi he cage door, they came willingly. “Empathy truly is the most important thing you can instill in a child because it is a boundless thing. It opens doors and creates love and respect,” says Medcalf, Toronto-based mom of Kate, now nine, and six-year-old Aidan.
In fact, experts say that parents are the best role models to help their children begin to understand feelings, and it begins as young as age three. Dr. Holly James, a psychologist in Calgary, explains that preschoolers learn through experience and by watching the world around them. “That’s why parents need to be consistently compassionate around their children,” she says. That can include saying “I’m sorry” when you’ve been wrong, and not talking negatively about the people in your life. As children learn to identify emotions, they are able to respond to another’s — the very meaning of empathy, explains Mary Gordon, founder and president of the classroom-based emotional literacy programs Roots of Empathy and Seeds of Empathy.
The benefits of having a strong sense of compassion are lifelong. According to research, empathy prevents aggression and bullying. And, says Gordon, “There is a huge correlation between children being empathetic and having friends, because the definition of a friend is someone who understands you.”
Here are a few ways you can guide your child to discover and experience emotions.
Next time you’re in front of the TV or reading a book with your child, point out an emotion as the character experiences it. “Kids need to identify feelings and anchor them. So if a character is disappointed, you might say, “I remember a time when you were disappointed — remember when you didn’t get that toy for your birthday?’ This way you are giving the child a vocabulary for his feelings,” says Gordon.
Try having a real chat with your child over the dinner table about your day and the emotions you experienced — whether it was being nervous about a presentation at work or sad when you heard a friend was ill. An open, frank conversation, giving children insight into your feelings, is what the experts call “perspective-taking,” says Gordon. “You can’t understand how someone feels unless you take the perspective of that person. Well, children can’t get insight into others if the others don’t share.”
Getting preschoolers involved with community activities or volunteering helps them develop an understanding of more than just themselves, says Dr. James. Even involving children in small acts of kindness, such as household recycling — or, as with the Medcalf family, sparing those innocent ants — will help nurture a lasting empathy in them for the world around them and everything living in it.
Lesley Young is a Toronto-based writer who remembers building a “caterpillar castle” in a shoebox at age five, and being a little relieved the next morning to discover her royalty had escaped.