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Foster Empathy in Your Kids Through Service

As parents and mentors of children, we know that establishing a character with empathy provides a basis for compassion and sympathy for others.  Deliberately teaching our children empathy means they will be able to put their own needs aside and see the needs of others.
This post focuses on how service can foster empathy in your kids, and is the third installment of a five-part series on
“How to Cultivate Empathy In Your Child’s Heart.”

Be sure to check the links at the bottom for the other articles!

I cringed as I heard a child screaming across the restaurant; the child was so loud I couldn’t concentrate on the menu.  My five year old was busy playing with a balloon just given to him and was in the middle of enjoying all that comes with a helium filled delight.  Without a word, he paused in his play, crawled out of our booth, and walked across the restaurant.  We watched the bobbing balloon, puzzled, as we had already taken a trip to the restroom.  Where was he going?  

He walked over to the booth that held the crying toddler and wordlessly handed over his shiny red balloon.  The toddler stopped screaming, giggled, grabbed the balloon, and started playing.  The best moment in all this:  the happy countenance on my son’s face as he crawled back into our booth.

Developing empathy means that our children will understand what someone else is going through and know how to respond.

Why is this important?

  • Having strong empathy for others decreases the chance of misinterpretation or misunderstanding as empathy helps a person “hear” what is going on with more than words.
  • Having strong empathy for others means to have the skill to communicate in a way that others will understand.
  • Having strong empathy for others develops the skill to combat the “ME” mentality that we hope will never settle into our children.

I appreciate how Daniel Goleman in his book Social Intelligence:  The New Science of Human Relationships describes what happens when the “ME” mentality sets in:

“Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.”

We serve with our young boys each day, and we have noticed that the strongest benefit from all this activity is that it fosters empathy in our boys.Every single time you serve someone else, I believe you are developing the skill of empathy, whether you are (1) putting together a care package for someone serving in the military and you talk about what that person is doing or (2) when you make a donation to a food pantry and you discuss with your children about how others are hungry.

The service acts where I see the most distinctive difference in my boys are when we interact with others in our community—those acts where they helped someone in a completely different situation than their own.  By far, the acts of service that have been the most profound were when we helped:

the elderly in nursing homes
those that are experiencing homelessness
those that have great medical need
animals in shelters

Once after dinner, my five year old said:

Mom, is there a way we can take some cookies to Kari’s house?  I could tell she was sad today.

When you start seeing your children develop empathy, it is awesome!

Not so sure about doing it?  Maybe you have REALLY active kids and you feel like you are at your max in doing just the basic stuff?  I get it.  I really do.  When my youngest was 2 and 3 years old, I felt like my every waking moment was spent just keeping him out of the knife drawer and from running out into the street.  GAH!

But, I want to encourage you to try a service act, a small one, even with young kids–even that ACTIVE one.  (Don’t worry; I have easy ideas that you can do and tips for you to keep in mind.)

See how it goes.  Do a small act a couple of times . . . and then see if it was worth the effort.

To start, here are some things to keep in mind.
  • Prepare your children for the experience.  Who are you helping?  What can you expect?  How is the person’s life the same and different from your own?
  •  Short, simple, and fun!  Don’t push your kids past the point of enjoying the experience.  Even if the experiece is only 10 minutes, it will have a positive effect.
  •  Guide your children through the process of serving.  They may not know what to say or do.  Take the lead and show them.
  •  Reflect after the experience.  Was it what you expected?  Why or why not?  How did your service help the other person?  How did it make you feel?  How did it make the other person feel?  Why?

I checked with my boys about which service acts to share with you.  They are my 6 and 4 year old experts.  Here are our favorite experiences serving in the community.  These are the experiences that my children talk about the most when I ask about how we can help others.

These 4 Easy Acts of Service in the Community are very simple, quite fun for kids, and are great ways to start taking your kids out in the community to serve.  I suggest these acts to start with because kids LOVE going out to places like the fire station and kids enjoy interacting with animals.  These four acts have been done repeatedly by children; even the youngest in the group have fun!

(click on the idea for more information)


Want a little bit more of a challenge? 
Then the following acts may be just what you need.
(click on the idea for more information)
Service does not have to last a long time to have a lasting effect on those serving.
Service does not have be complicated to be meaningful.

Teach children to serve.  It is worth it.


Be sure to check out the other posts in this series: