Empathy is a skill – one that we can cultivate and strengthen with practice. Empathy means that we can imagine what someone else is thinking or feeling and then respond in a caring manner.
Seven-year-olds understand that other people have thoughts and feelings that are different than their own, and they can use this knowledge to respond to others in a way that meets their specific needs. They can begin to forecast with more accuracy how specific events and behaviors will affect the feelings of people around them.
Research indicates that reading fiction promotes empathy. Books are an ideal way to both expose children to diverse cultures and to talk with them about struggles people face locally and globally. These three book lists — curated by Common Sense Media, National Public Radio and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center — are a good place to start. While reading, pause to ask questions such as, "How do you think she feels right now?" or "What do you think he needs?"
Encourage Perspective Taking
When your children talk about events at school, on the playground or in the news, help them practice taking the perspective of others: How did their classmate feel in that situation? Encourage them to talk about how they are feeling, and model sharing your own thoughts and emotions. For example, "I felt frustrated because . . ." or "I felt scared when . . ."
Use Empathy to Guide Giving
Before performing a kind deed for someone in need, ask kids to think about what they know about that person — their needs, interests, likes and dislikes — and then write a note, make a gift or perform a small act of kindness that matches them.
Put Other People on Their Radar
As Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd says, "Almost all kids are kind to somebody and have empathy for somebody. The real work is getting them to be kind and empathetic to people outside of their immediate circle of concern," including people of various races, nationalities, ages and abilities. Parents can help kids get in the habit of noticing and empathizing with people outside of this circle. As a starting place, you can point when you notice another child playing alone on the playground or ask your child to tell you about a new classmate — and then talk about how to welcome and include them.