Young children are naturally egocentric. This is a normal part of their development, as they must first make sense of the world around them through their own eyes, before they can see it through someone else’s. In fact, until they approach preschool age, they have little reason to believe that others might have feelings or thoughts different from their own. But getting them to eventually understand that everyone’s got their own perspective, is how we teach kindness.
Empathy — the ability to imagine how others might be feeling — is a cornerstone of kindness, and Jessica Rolph, your host, is joined by Monica Guthrie-Purchase to help us support our children in building that skill. Monica is a Start Early Education Coordinator. She is also the mother of two adult sons and grandmother to one granddaughter.
[2:01] What is the first step to building kindness?
[2:45] How can parents model empathy?
[5:10] When do children start showing that they have empathy?
[6:43] How can parents help their children build perspective?
[9:34] The benefits of teaching your child that a person isn’t bad, only their behavior.
[11:18] Should parents encourage their child to make an apology?
[14:24] Monica shares some practical activities to teach empathy.
[16:28] How can books help children build kindness and empathy?
[17:23] Thinking of others can become part of the daily routine at home.
[20:46] Jessica shares her top takeaways from the conversation with Monica Guthrie-Purchase.
Jessica: Hello, Monica.
Monica: Hi, how are you?
How to teach kindness in children
Jessica: I’m so looking forward to talking about this important topic with you today, so Kindness is a value that so many of us parents just really want to instill in our children. So how do we do it? What is that first step?
Monica: I would say that I think the very first step is really looking in the mirror. As parents, we want to do our best to be what we want to see in our children. And it’s teaching them and showing them that we are not perfect. That we have emotions and feelings, and sometimes they get the best of us, but to show them how we work through those different feelings… Anger, frustration. And showing them that it’s okay giving yourself grace to work through those moments, teaches them to give themselves grace and others grace in those moments.
Jessica: Can you give me an example Monica… How would you model this empathy? Let’s say I’m like really frustrated about something, and talk to me about a scenario that I might have with my child.
Monica: Okay, let’s take riding in a car, right? You’re riding in the car, and you’re in traffic… You have a situation where it’s traffic, you have been in meetings all day, you have to get home, you have to cook dinner. Somebody has soccer practice and you’re just frustrated. So you go, “Ugh.” And instead of just leaving it at that, “Ugh, I’m so tired of being in traffic.” Say, “Ugh, mommy is really frustrated right now. I think I need to take a breath.” And take that breath. Because I don’t want what I feel right now to be taken out on someone else. So I’m going to take a moment. I’m going to take a deep breath and I’m going to let it out.
I think I need another one. You want to join me? Let’s take a breath together. Ready. Okay. We’re going to go in. And we’re going to go out. And we’re going to push all of frustration away. I think I feel a little bit better. How do you feel? Well, what do you do when you get frustrated? Do you ever get frustrated? And the child might give an example of somebody taking something from them at school, or their sister hitting them, or… You know, when mommy says, “No, you can’t have candy.” Well, how does that make you feel? And the child might not even have the words to describe how that makes them feel, but they might have the facial expressions. Right? They might have the sound effects, the ugh. The ghhhhh. And you say, “Well, what do you do with those feelings?” Do you keep them inside or do you let them go? Let’s think of some ways how we can let those feelings go so you don’t hit your sister, or so you don’t hit your friend at school. Let’s see how we can get those good feelings inside.
When do kids show empathy
Jessica: I loved what you said about, I’m feeling frustrated and I don’t want to take this out on someone else. That is a great script for connecting the feeling of frustration and then you know the action or your behavior that can be an outcome of a feeling. So I love, I love that. I’m going to write that down and bring it home.
Can you talk to me about how we can recognize that empathy is developing in our toddler when they’re interacting with a peer or with our young child… Maybe we move beyond toddlerhood. When do they start showing that they have empathy?
Monica: Even at a young age, you can see toddlers, a toddler will come into the room and one of the toddlers might be sad because their mom is gone. The other toddler even if they haven’t developed their language yet might see that baby sad and walk up over to them and put their hand on their shoulder, or give them a hug. So what happens, I think, a lot of times younger than we know, and I think it’s just being observant as parents and recognizing those moments and even speaking on those moments to let children know,
“You know what, when I dropped you off at school today, I saw that Bobby came in and he was looking a little sad. And you gave him your favorite stuffed animal because you saw he was sad. That was very kind of you. I am so proud of you for showing kindness to your friend. How do you think that made him feel when you gave him your teddy bear? What did he do?” Showing those children and giving them that language, giving them those words to say what you did was showing kindness. What you did was caring for another person. And then letting them know that you’re proud of them as their parent.
Jessica: I also really liked how you help your child take the other perspective. You almost kind of take that leap for your child. Can you talk a little bit more about that. About how we build perspective for our children. For example, let’s say our toddler hits another child or engages in something unkind, what are some ways that we can share… We understand that we can empathize with our child and take their perspective, what about helping them to take another person’s perspective?
Monica: My son is actually 20… Oh my gosh, 20 something. But when he was younger, he was in a pre-school where he was getting bit by a particular child. And when the child would bite him he would hit the child. And I had to have a conversation with him. And it wasn’t… Why did you hit this child. And I just kind of asked, “What happened today in school?” And he said, “Sarah bit me.” And I said, “Huh, I wonder why Sarah bit you. Do you think she was hungry?” He says, “No, mommy wasn’t hungry. She bit me because she’s mean.” I said, “Well, who said she’s mean? And he said, “She bit me.” I said, “But let’s think about it. You played with Sarah before, right?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “So, we know that Sarah knows how to play with other people. So let’s see what happened after Sarah bit you?” “She took the train I was playing with.” I said, “Huh.”
“So Sarah likes the train.” And he said, “Well, she bites me every time I have it and takes the train from me.” I said, “Okay.” I said, “Well, what do you think that we can do to help Sarah not feel the need to bite you to take the train.” He said, “But I want to play with the train.” I said, “That’s okay. Well, how many trains are there at school?” And he said, “I don’t know. It’s a lot of trains.” I said, “Oh. So what do you think if tomorrow when you want to play with the train, you ask Sarah to come play with the trains with you.” “I don’t like Sarah. Sarah’s mean.” I said, “Okay, but let’s just try it and see what happens.” He tried it. Sarah did not bite him for a week. Now Sarah eventually did bite him again but that taught him to not, one, judge people and to put a label on them, but to give someone a second chance. And he knows too now that he gets second chances and he tries to give other people the same grace that he would want them to give to him.
Understanding bad behavior
Jessica: I love that. I love that. And there’s also this concept of separating the person and are they a good or bad person. I think oftentimes, we conflate… Children conflate behavior with then determining, Okay, that person’s bad. That person’s bad. And not separating the behaviors bad. Can you give me another example of how you might create this distinction for a young child to understand that the person isn’t bad, but the behavior is bad.
Monica: And I really think the way that you said it is perfectly. And that’s the thing, is saying that what they did was bad, but what they did is not who they are. And teaching young children that they might be the change that they want to see in someone else, by leading by example. It’s all… It’s all a cycle. We’re mirroring for our children what we want them to become… Our hope is that our children then go out in the world and be the change that they want to see for someone else.
Jessica: So apologies… Apologies are tricky terrain.
Monica: Very much so.
Should you encourage an apology?
Jessica: Do we force an apology, do we encourage our child to make an apology? Is there a better way? Let’s talk about a 3-year-old. Ground us in that sort of age and stage around apologies.
Monica: So 3-year-olds are kind of… Are tricky because they are really the real bosses of the world, because they run everything. I know this was kind of like a debate that even my mom and I had. My mom was an educator for 40 years, and then when I had kids, she was a… What we call old school, when she believed in, you do something that’s “wrong” you apologize for it. And my youngest son was very… I said was, he still is pretty solid in who he was as a person early on in life, and if he was not sorry, he would tell you, I’m not sorry, I meant to do that or I meant to say that. And it took me a minute to kind of settle in and understand where he was coming from, and what I had to do with him was kind of say, “Okay, I understand that, you’re saying you’re not sorry but that hurt their feelings.” I said, “So how can we fix this?” And he said, “But they did this. I did this and I’m not sorry.” I said, “Okay.” I said, “But they’re crying. How is that making you feel?” And he said, “Well, I don’t want them to cry.”
I said, “Okay, well, is it possible? Maybe you can apologize for them feeling that way?” I said, “Did you meet to make them cry?” Most of the time my son would say, “No, I didn’t want them to cry.” And I said, “But they are crying, how can we fix this?” And most times my son would say, “I’m sorry, I made you cry,” and kinda teaching them that separation that you can not be sorry for the act but possibly sorry for the reaction of the act in young children, I don’t think that forcing an apology really helps because then it helps, that teaches them to give empty apologies which aren’t beneficial, and when they grow up older and they get into deeper relationships, that has different consequences.
Activities that teach empathy
Jessica: That is really great advice. Help us understand some activities or some things that we can practically do so we know that we need to model empathy, and we need to give empathy to our children and we need to model the sort of self-regulation, I’m frustrated and I’m not going to take it out on somebody else. I loved that moment, that script that you said, can you share with us some practical activities you can recommend to teach empathy?
Monica: Yeah, for sure. You could do something as simple as having a kindness tree, you could just draw a tree with your child, have it maybe on the refrigerator and maybe have even like a competition, a family competition of, Okay, today, I’m going to be kind, and be very intentional with it, I’m going to be kind to my co-worker, Christy, today, who are you going to be kind to? They might pick a classmate or they might pick their sibling, or they might pick even mom, your daddy, grandma, whoever.
It’s putting in some ways the onus on the child and without putting the pressure on them. You’re not giving them the words, you’re helping them to think about what kindness looks like to them, and what different things they can do to show kindness to other people, and this is something I think that it can go from young to old.
So it’s not just an early childhood thing, it’s something that they can take with them for the rest of their life, teaching them to be very intentional with their kindness and being very intentional with their giving.
When it comes to frustration, some practical things you can do is to establish like a calming place in the house for their child, give them a place that they can go when they’re frustrated. It might be a little corner in a room, make it nice, put some pillows, and put some little lights up there and let them know that this is your calming place when you just get frustrated, you just need to go somewhere and breathe, you can sit here, you can breathe, you can put some kindness book, there’s a nice little book called Kindness Starts With You. And you might even have some different manipulatives that might help to calm them as well.
Jessica: And then there’s some research on the role of books that actually… The books and reading stories about other people’s experiences can actually be a great tool for building empathy. Can you talk to this a little bit?
Monica: Yeah, absolutely. I love books, and children love books, and it’s kinda like… It hits a lot of things, it hits the language, it hits the literacy, but it also hits the compassion because it shows them… One, it shows them diversity, because it shows them that everybody is not the same and that we’re all different, which I absolutely love, and it helps them to see different perspectives. It helps to give them different ideas because maybe they didn’t think about… Oh, somebody fell down, I should help them up, maybe they just didn’t think about that, but they read that in the story, maybe they didn’t think about, Oh, if I have five strawberries, I could give two of them to somebody else and I would still have three. So books really do help children to think outside of their current knowledge.
Jessica: How do we instill this kind of kindness and thinking of others as a part of our daily life with our children?
Monica: Like I said, I think it’s really… Most of this is really about the mirroring… I can remember a time when I was in the classroom, actually, this was around the time… I’m trying to think of the year when there was a big earthquake in Haiti, and I remember talking to my students and they could tell that I was a little sad. And they said, You know, “Ms. Monica, what’s wrong? Why are you sad?” And I said, “There’s a place on the map.” And I showed them on the map, I said, Called Haiti.” I said, “And it was a big earthquake.” I said, “And there are a lot of people and a lot of boys and girls.” I said, “Who lost their homes, and lost their schools.” I said, “And I’m pretty sad.” And they said, “Oh no, no, I’m sad too.” And they said, “We have to help.” And I said, “Well, I don’t know how we can help.” I say, “You all are too little to help.”
I had a plan. I said, “Well, you’re too little. How can you help?” I said, “No, we can help.” And I said, “Well, how can we help? They need so much, it’s so far away, we can get to them.” And one little kid said, “We can give him stuff.” And I said, “Well, what do you think we can give them?” They said, “We can give them food.” I said, “Huh, okay, well, let’s see, how will we get food?” And I kinda talked them through this, I’m going to say I go to the grocery store and then we came to… We’d have to send it to them. That might not be good. And someone else said, “Oh, I know what we could do, we could send them love.” And I said, “I love that idea.” I said, “Can you think of a way that we can show them love? And make it like a picture.” And they said, “We can draw hearts, and we could send them to them.” And then another kid said, “I got pennies.” And I said, “Pennies?” He said, “I have pennies.” And so another kid, “I have pennies, I have pennies, I have pennies.”
And I said, “Do you think if we put all the pennies together, we can send the pennies and then the pennies will help them to build houses back?” And they said, “Yeah.” So long story short, we ended up doing Pennies for Haiti, Pennies and Hearts for Haiti, where they were asking their family for pennies, it became a school-wide thing, they were asking their classmates and different kids from different rooms for pennies. We ended up raising, I think, $500 that we gave to Haiti relief. And all of the kids drew hearts, and some of them wrote messages, some of them were legible, some of them were not, they drew pictures and hearts, and we put them all in a box, and I gave them to a friend who was going there to do a mission to help in the efforts, and they said they took it to one of the orphanages that was there.
Jessica: I’m feeling emotional. Wow. What an inspiring story. There’s so much happening in the world all the time. I love how you modeled sadness, communicated in a child-appropriate way, what was going on in the world, and then you said, “Well, you can’t help, you’re too little.” And then they came back with ideas. What a beautiful story. It has been so wonderful to have you with us today, Monica, thank you so much for being with us.
Monica: My pleasure.
- Problem solve. Remember to drive home the message that even if another child hits or does something unkind to your child — while their behavior is bad, the person is not bad. What they did is not who they are. Teach your child the value in building empathy for the other child, problem solving, and giving people a second chance. Help your child get curious about why the other child acted as they did, and come up with ways that might prevent those triggers.
- Lead by example by modeling your own emotional regulation. Explain what you’re feeling: “I’m feeling frustrated and I don’t want to take this out on someone else.” Show your toddler how you can breathe through the frustration. Say to your child, “When you feel frustrated, what do you do with those big feelings? Let’s talk about some ways to let them go.”
- Recognize kindness. When your toddler is kind to a friend, comment on it. Then ask them: “How do you think that made your friend feel when you cared for them?” This teaches your child empathy.
- Approach apologies with curiosity. Forcing an apology may teach your child to give empty apologies. Instead, show them the distinction between feeling sorry for what was done and feeling sorry for the reaction. Ask them, “Did you mean to make your friend cry?” They will often say they did not, but express the injustice they feel around what happened. This is your opportunity to point out the difference between the action and how it made the other person feel. Your child might be OK to say, “I’m sorry I made you cry.”
- One of Monica’s favorite activities for teaching kindness is the creation of a Kindness Tree, where you discuss as a family who will be the recipient of your kind actions each day.
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