Image for child empathy article Flip through the channels on your television and you’ll get a sense of the pervasiveness of violence in our culture. It’s likely that you’ll see a disturbing collage of explosions, blasting guns, punching and kicking. Even some of the more educational and “scientific” programs have violence and murder as frequent topics. Take a trip to your local video store and notice how many videos have violent themes. Visit the video arcade where your children like to hang out and check out their games. What do you see?

How Parents Can Help

You know you can’t control all of the things that affect your children’s lives. But there are things you can do to encourage your children to become more caring, compassionate, and responsible, in spite of the harshness to which they are exposed. The American Psychological Association offers these tips:

Tell Your Children How You Feel

One of the most important things you can do is let your children know how much it means to you that they show kindness to others. Look for ways that they show caring toward others and reinforce this behavior with praise: “Susan, that was so nice of you to comfort Timmy when he was crying. I’m proud of you.”

When your children do something that you think is thoughtless or cruel, immediately let them know that you don’t want them doing that. Be honest and firm. Focus on the behavior, not the child personally. “What you did is not very nice,” rather than “You’re not very nice.” Explain how their behavior affects others.

Set a Good Example

Your children learn from your words and actions. If you consistently show kindness to them and to others, they are more apt to learn to be caring. Remember that if you say one thing, but do another, you will lose credibility in your child’s eyes. An example of this would be complimenting someone on her hairdo, but then making fun of it when she’s gone.

Here are some suggestions on setting a good example for your children:

  • Help a lonely or elderly neighbor.
  • Donate canned goods to a food bank.
  • Give money and a kind word to a homeless person.
  • Provide your children with other role models such as family members and friends who are kind and caring.
  • Encourage your children to do volunteer work in the community, such as visiting people in nursing homes or helping the disabled.
  • Encourage your children to take care of a pet.

Counteracting the Influences of the Outside World

In spite of your best efforts, your children will be exposed to outside influences that model uncaring and violent behavior. Here are some tips to help counteract these influences:

  • According to a study at the National Institute of Mental Health, children tend to imitate the kindness they see on television. Therefore, it may be wise to encourage your children to watch television shows that have positive role models and promote ideas about caring, and to limit their viewing of violent programs.
  • Give your children resources such as books and videos that promote acts of compassion. Keep in mind that children and teens are likely to respond better to compassionate characters that are ordinary, rather than perfect.
  • Ask your children about movies they have seen or want to see. Do they glorify violence to people or animals? Do they glamorize criminals or people who obtain what they want at the expense of others? Ask them to think about alternative approaches that characters might have taken.
  • Educate your children about famous heroes and heroines who exemplified caring and compassion. They can learn about such people through books, television specials, and museums. Ask them who they admire and why.

Importance of the Early Years

The early years of children’s development (birth to age five) influence their later development and ability to show compassion. According to human development specialists at the University of Missouri, children are more apt to develop compassion if they are provided with a foundation of:

  • Trust—If babies learn that the adults caring for them are kind and dependable, they will develop trust. When others respond sensitively to babies’ needs, they feel valued and important, which builds the foundation for caring and kindness toward others.
  • Consistency—Parents who express consistent expectations of their children help them to develop predictable views of the world. Consistency and clarity with directions and explanations help children feel safe in exploring the world, while inconsistent requests and expectations create confusion.
  • Positive guidance—Children learn best when they feel calm and secure. Guidance based on love and respect helps children develop an awareness of their behavior for others. Research shows that harsh physical punishment can weaken a child’s trust in adults and does not help teach self-control. Children receiving consistent and positive guidance are more likely to treat others with compassion.