How to Raise Empathetic Kids in a World Full of Apathy

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Two girls gossiping about another girl at school

By Nichole Suvar

I was bullied in elementary school. 

One day a group of girls were my friends, and the next day it was as if some unspoken pact had been signed, and I wasn’t around for it.

 I suddenly became the punchline for every joke. Anything I did was laughed at and scorned. 

The hour-long bus ride home was torture as hateful words were whispered, my bookbag was often taken, and hurtful laughter surrounded me. 

Surprisingly, my husband has a very similar story from his childhood.

Though I don’t wish a similar school experience on anybody, it has shaped our thoughts and intentions in adulthood. 

We are for the underdog and try to instill that mindset in our kids.

I came across a sad statistic the other day. From 1979 to 2009, the level of empathy among Americans fell by 48%

From 1979 to 2009, the level of empathy among Americans fell by 48%.Click to Tweet

What is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s place and understand the feelings and situation from their viewpoint.

In a world screaming for acknowledgment of personal pain or hiding their shame behind closed doors for fear of judgment, compassion and empathy are needed but hard to find. 

The rise in materialism among Americans and the distraction caused by smartphones have contributed to the fall in empathy.

In this country, we are more likely to hear the mantras of close-minded, self-centered individuals than ones of selflessness and empathy. 

Picture of Empathy Definition in dictionary with pink highlighter | Raising Empathetic Kids

How Do We Turn the Tide and Raise Empathetic Kids?

What can we do to change a society barreling down the path of self-first mentality and help them establish an others-centered attitude? 

We change our culture by modeling empathy for our children. 

Empathy is not innate; it is a learned behavior. 

If we can raise a generation of empathetic humans, imagine the change that could happen when compassion and mercy take the lead. 

This positive shift will not come by passing legislation or funding organizations. 

It comes through small, intentional moments spent modeling empathy for our children. 

Each moment and each memory builds upon the other to bring about compassion and empathy.

We change our culture by modeling empathy for our children.Click to Tweet
Young kids gathering donations for needy people

Three Ways to Model Empathy For Our Kids

Here are three practical ways to model empathy for the next generation.

1- Raise empathetic kids by introducing them to other cultures, income levels, and age groups.

Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. Hebrews 13:3 ESV

For more than five years, our family lived on the campus of a residential treatment facility. 

We lived 24/7 with teenagers from a variety of backgrounds. 

They opened our eyes, and our children’s eyes, to the effects of poverty, racial prejudice, and trauma. 

This experience helped us see that we all view life through the lens of our own experiences—just because I was brought up one way doesn’t mean it’s the best way.

Though I don’t expect you to live on a treatment facility campus, you can expose your kids to different walks of life in other ways. 

Visit a nursing home. Find out if there is something you can do with the residents during their activity time. Spend time with someone who is most likely lonely and has a whole lifetime of stories and lessons to share if one is just willing to listen. 

Raise empathetic kids by introducing them to other cultures, income levels, and age groups.Click to Tweet

Do your shopping in another area of town. For the last year, we have been frequenting a grocery store in a different part of town from where we live. It’s only a 10-minute drive, but the demographic is different. 

The children and I go mid-morning, look people in the eye and tell them hello, make a way in the aisle for the man on a scooter, and offer to get an item for a woman who was not blessed with height. At the end of our trip, we strike up a conversation with the cashier. 

For you, maybe it’s the big box store in a poorer part of town. You will find a whole demographic of people you would never brush shoulders with otherwise. 

It may be uncomfortable at first, but when we get past the feeling that we just want to be around people who think, look, and act like us, we find other humans who desire the same things as us: to be loved, included, and treated with respect.

Passing fabric heart from parent to child | Raising Empathetic Kids

2 – Raise empathetic kids by expressing empathy toward them.

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.  Galatians 6:2 ESV

When my daughter was in 5th grade, she struggled in a friendship with a new girl who moved to her school. 

There were a few different instances where the new girl went to the teacher, complaining that my daughter had hurt her feelings. 

My daughter was baffled, thinking the things she had said were playful and not hurtful. 

When I had a chance to talk with the new girl’s mom, it was discovered that they were not only new to the school, but new to the country! 

Things my daughter had said, that would be understood by another American student, were not interpreted the same way by someone born and raised in another country. 

Raise empathetic kids by expressing empathy toward them.Click to Tweet

When my daughter placed herself in the new girl’s shoes, it was a lot easier to have compassion for her situation.

When your children tell you of a struggle they are experiencing, model empathy toward them. 

Listen to them and ask questions that clarify. Repeat what they said and ask, “Did I get that right? Is there anything else?” 

Acknowledge their hurt without needing to fix it. Sit with them in their challenging situation and try to see it from their point of view. 

If they are having conflict with another person, help your child put themselves in the other person’s shoes. 

This doesn’t condone anyone’s behavior, or make excuses for it, but it can help your child (and you) possibly see the reason behind why someone acted the way they did.

Bigger girl taking care of smaller girl being teased

3- Raise empathetic kids by teaching them to cheer for the underdog.

Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Philippians 2:3-4 ESV

For the last several years, two of our children have been a part of their school’s cross-country team. 

There are many things to enjoy about this sport including, being outside in the cool, autumn weather, races that only last 15 minutes or less (home for dinner!), and the camaraderie among teammates. 

What I really love, though, is that you always get a chance to cheer for the underdog. 

There will be runners who finish their 3K race in 12 minutes. But there will also be the runner who comes in dead last, somewhere around the 28-minute mark. 

Raise empathetic kids by teaching them to cheer for the underdog.Click to Tweet

Those runners always inspire me. They know they aren’t going to win the race, but they keep moving ahead regardless.

I love to stay to the finish and cheer on those final runners who have just as much heart as the gold medal winner.

Teach your children to seek out the back-of-the-pack runners, the kids on the fringe, and the children at school who are often hanging by themselves. 

Encourage them to find the one who is left out and hold out a hand to include them. 

Be an example to them in that you are willing to cheer for the underdog by not always aligning yourself with the sure winner and people’s favorite.

Woman writing on sidewalk "help others. be kind" | Raising Empathetic Kids

Concluding Thoughts on Raising Empathetic Kids

Raising empathetic kids and producing an environment of compassion won’t happen overnight. 

But, if this generation of parents is willing to put in the work to teach empathy, call out prejudice, and instill compassion, then there is hope for our future. 

Empathy begins with small, intentional moments. 

And it can begin in your home today!

-Nichole Suvar

Nichole Suvar currently lives in Fort Wayne, IN, with her husband Paul, and their three children. In hopes of encouraging others to take small moments of each day to intentionally seek after Jesus, she shares her journey on her blog, The Intentional Life. You can learn more about Nichole, and practical ways to live an intentional life, by seeking her out on Instagram or Facebook.

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