The Science of Growing Caring Kids

Research is constantly emerging to support the importance and techniques of teaching empathy and kindness. Parents can encourage caring at all stages of development – infant, toddler, preschool, and school-age -- knowing the practice pays off!

Why is the development of empathy and compassion so important?

Many believe, like Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., co-author of Born to Love, that compassion and empathy “underlie virtually everything that makes society work — like trust, altruism, collaboration, love, charity.” In fact, research tells us that empathetic people are more likely to be cooperative, are more apt to have higher quality social relationships and are better at resolving conflict. A high degree of empathy also motivates helping behavior and reduces bullying. And empathy inspires simple kindness — like letting somebody move ahead of you in line, or giving money to a homeless person.

But it’s not only others who benefit when we practice compassion. Recent evidence points to a significant correlation between student scores on empathy measures and their grade point averages. And individuals who do for others are more likely to be happier, more successful and even live longer.

Those who practice empathy, help others and give back to their communities as children also show a lifelong commitment to service and justice. Studies show that adults who volunteered with their families as kids are three times more likely to be involved in community service compared to adults who didn’t.

Does parenting influence the development of empathy and compassion in children?

Absolutely. Researchers agree that children are born with the capacity for empathy. Genetic and environmental factors figure into its development, but parents can nurture and strengthen empathy through appropriate discipline, meaningful conversations and by providing opportunities to “do for others.” “Empathy is a skill like any other human skill,” says University of Cambridge Professor Simon Baron Cohen. “If you get a chance to practice, you can get better at it.”

What child-rearing practices help nurture empathy in children?

Research indicates that parents can encourage caring at all stages of development – infant, toddler, preschool, and school-age. 

Newborns, even some as young as 18 hours old, demonstrate the foundations of empathy with “reflexive crying”: when they hear other babies cry, they cry themselves. This unconscious behavior indicates an early instinctive reaction to the distress of others.

What parents can do

  • Maternal warmth and sensitive, responsive parenting are critical to developing empathy. Pick up babies when they cry and comfort them when they need you. You’ll build a secure attachment and a foundation of love and affection.

At this age, children begin to give “help” when they sense someone is in distress. Has your toddler ever offered his or her pacifier or blanket when you were crying? This kind of assistance is more about what the child needs for comfort rather than what you might need. That’s because although your child feels your distress, he or she is unable to realize that you have your own, separate feelings. This early stage of caring is termed “egocentric empathy.”

What parents can do

  • Become your child’s “emotion coach.” Help your child label the emotion they’re experiencing (“You’re excited that we’re going for a ride!”), take time to describe how others are feeling (“James is sad because he has to go home now”), and express empathy when he or she is feeling negative emotions.
  • Emphasize that strong feelings, although understandable, are never an excuse for unkind behavior.

Now children can start to take another person’s perspective. They can understand that everyone has feelings, use language to express emotions, and comprehend that sometimes outward appearance can mask true feelings.

What parents can do

  • Research suggests that parents who use reasoning in their discipline are more likely to grow kind kids. Rather than simply forbidding a certain behavior, explain your moral objections to it.
  • Point out the consequences of unkind behavior. Explain why the action is hurtful and suggest how to make amends. Help your child see the impact of kind behavior, too. (“Grandma was so pleased to get the card you made.” Or, “That person looked so happy when you picked up his cane for him.”)
  • Continue your emotion coaching. Problem-solve with your children when they are faced with difficulties in their relationships with others or are struggling with strong negative emotions. But remember to always set firm limits on behavior as you together explore strategies to cope with these challenges.
  • Watch movies and read books with themes of caring and giving, or with characters that practice compassion. (Check out our resource list for ideas.) Talk about the feelings of the various characters.
  • Take on a simple service project and talk about how you feel as a giver — and how the person you’re helping feels.
  • Let your children know the high value you place on treating others with kindness. Talk often about the importance of caring. If someone holds the door when your arms are full of groceries, remark on how helpful it was. If you shovel an elderly neighbor’s sidewalk, explain why you did it.
  • Your kids  are watching how you treat them as well as other people. Always  acknowledge your children’s feelings as important and show respect fortheir viewpoint.
  • Begin a dinner conversation ritual: “Who did you help today?  Who helped you today?”

Between ages 10 and 12, children are able to reflect in a more abstract way on what it means to be a good person. They can begin to understand another person’s motivations. (“She probably got angry today because she’s upset about her mom being in the hospital.”)

What parents can do

  • Research  shows that we feel most empathetic to those we consider to be like us, so  get to know all kinds of people. Look for activities where you can increase tolerance and contradict stereotypes. Remind children of the similarities among us and talk about valuing the differences.
  • Find opportunities to put your child in someone else’s shoes. For example, when your child is in conflict with a friend or sibling, have him or her articulate the adversary’s viewpoint. Do the same with bullying or teasing. (“How do you think the little boy felt when that older kid teased him?”)
  • Tell stories about courage and compassion, perhaps those of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger or Burma’s Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
  • Encourage your child to discuss their feelings and problems with you.
  • Avoid extrinsic rewards or bribes for good behavior. This encourages appropriate behavior only as long as the reward is present.
  • Ask questions that encourage conversations about helping people who are distressed. If there’s a disaster anywhere in the world, brainstorm how your family might help.
  • Talk about why good people sometimes engage in immoral or unkind behavior. Talk about the Milgram experiment, a famous research study in which “regular” people were persuaded to harm others. Describe a time when doing the right thing was challenging for you. Ask your child if he or she has had a similar experience.
  • Start a family tradition of charitable giving.

Considering the critical importance of empathy, kindness and community responsibility to the development of character and lifelong values, children need opportunities to “practice” these qualities. The Big-Hearted Families project offers dozens of fun, engaging, research-based activities to educate and expand your child’s heart.