How to Raise an Empathetic Child: A Guide for the Parents of Children 2 – 6

In a time when we are surrounded by news stories of hatred and division, raising kids who are not only empathetic but act on it to support others definitely sounds like an appealing antidote. Plus, hundreds of research studies show that performing acts of kindness increases happiness and well-being.(^1)

The encouraging news is that supporting others is a natural impulse. In fact, children show an inclination to help and support others as early as infancy.(^2) At thirteen months, children will show comforting behaviors to others by hugging or patting.(^3) As they mature in their social and cognitive abilities, they learn how to better understand others’ needs and offer their support.

But don’t mistake this as a reason to take a back seat when it comes to actively teaching empathy; support (and modeling of these behaviors!) from grownups is critical. And the value of helping cannot be overstated — in many ways our survival depends on the care and cooperation in our social community.(^4) Here are some ideas to encourage empathy in children:

Washing family

2 - 4 Years Old

  • Practice recognizing others’ emotions.
    For young children, just learning how to recognize that someone is in need is a good first step. Help your child notice the signs when help, or emotional support is needed, even if they’re not able to do something about it. For instance, children may notice and look concerned about another child crying, but feel overwhelmed by the child’s cries and avoid intervening. You can still teach them to look for the signs as a way to start building empathy.
  • Talk about what they like.
    Children will try to help others by doing things that make them feel good. For example, a child who loves physical affection may want to hug everyone to show their love, or a child who takes comfort in books may want to share a story with a loved one.(^5) It’s perfectly fine for kids to learn about helping others by thinking about their own likes and interests, but then start to encourage them to think about and recognize what others like, too.
  • Encourage sharing.
    Sharing can be tough, but it’s a good introduction to supporting others, especially for little ones. Point out how it makes the other person feel when you share. Keep in mind that children may avoid these actions when it takes greater emotion regulation. For instance, a child could feel more reluctant about sharing their favorite toy than a less-favored toy.(^3)

4 - 6 Years Old

  • Practice perspective taking.
    Children begin to recognize that other people may not only have different emotions and beliefs but that they may express those emotions differently.(^6,7) Help your child identify and even celebrate this by comparing and contrasting likes and interests with close family members or friends. Learning to notice others’ thoughts and feelings can go a long way in offering them support.
  • Encourage acting on empathy.
    This is an age where kids can begin to recognize when someone needs help even if the person in need does not ask. When your child sees others feeling sad or upset, talk to them about what action they can take (for example, helping a friend who is crying to find the teacher, or trying to stop another child from hitting, etc.).(^8)
  • Talk about fairness & morality .
    At this age, kids are beginning to develop an understanding of fairness and justice, and use these as reasons to help other people and share resources.(^9)You might not be able to make things fair or “right,” but you can talk to kids about how to offer help.

Act on Empathy as a Family

  • Model empathetic behaviors. It’s easy to say we want our kids to be empathetic, but are we as adults doing the same? For better or for worse, our kids often pick up on things that seem commonplace to us. From the way we talk to (or about) a server, or someone on the phone, model the kind of interactions you hope your child will have with others. 
  • Recognize & engage in acts of kindness. Notice when others are kind to each other or act kindly towards you. For example, “It was nice of that driver to let us go by first” or “It made me smile when that man held the door open for that lady.” Then engage in acts of kindness yourselves! Write kind messages to strangers with chalk on the sidewalk. Leave a surprise gift for a loved one just because.
  • Check-in on elderly family members or neighbors. Send them a handmade card or drop off a care package. Rake their leaves, take the time to have a conversation, and try to anticipate their needs. 
  • Donate to a local charity or food bank. If you can, research local charities with your child and decide on one to contribute to. You can even go door-to-door collecting items needed at a local shelter. 
  • Get out of your comfort zone. Whether you and your child serve meals at a local soup kitchen, or go pick up trash to help our shared planet, it’s the experience of doing that’s often most impactful for adults and children alike.


  1. Hui, B. P. H., Ng, J. C. K., Berzaghi, E., Cunningham-Amos, L. A., & Kogan, A. (2020). Rewards of kindness? A meta-analysis of the link between prosociality and well-being. Psychological Bulletin, 146(12), 1084–1116.
  2. Dahl, A. (2015). The developing social context of infant helping in two U.S. samples. Child Development 86(4), 1080–93.
  3. Svetlova, M., Nichols, S. R., & Brownell, C. A. (2010). Toddlers’ prosocial behavior: From instrumental to empathic to altruistic helping. Child Development, 81(6), 1814–1827.
  4. Tomasello, Michael. Why We Cooperate. Cambridge, MA, US: MIT Press, 2009.
  5. Kohm, K. E., Holmes, R. M., Romeo, L., & Koolidge, L. (2016). The connection between shared storybook readings, children’s imagination, social interactions, affect, prosocial behavior, and social play. International Journal of Play, 5(2), 128-140.
  6. Wellman, H. M., & Liu, D. (2004). Scaling of theory‐of‐mind tasks. Child Development, 75(2), 523-541.
  7. Imuta, K., Henry, J. D., Slaughter, V., Selcuk, B., & Ruffman, T. (2016). Theory of mind and prosocial behavior in childhood: A meta-analytic review. Developmental Psychology, 52(8), 1192-1205.
  8. Eisenberg, N., Spinrad, T. L., & Sadovsky, A. (2006). Empathy-related responding in children. In M. Killen & J. G. Smetana (Eds.), Handbook of Moral Development (p. 517–549). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
  9. Lu, H. J., & Chang, L. (2016). Resource allocation to kin, friends, and strangers by 3-to 6-year-old children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 150, 194-206.

August 5, 2021 by Donna Housman, Ed.D 0 Comments

Parent-Teacher Relationships: The Key to Back-to-School Success

Children are heading to school this fall, many for the very first time. Although the pandemic was an emotional rollercoaster for children and families, there is a silver lining: parents and teachers developed a more solid understanding of the importance of strong parent-teacher relationships and communication, a realization that can boost learning and development as we transition out of the pandemic.

Children thrive when parents and teachers have strong relationships.
Housman Emotions Board

As students head to schools and classrooms, social and emotional learning is parents’ top concern. Six in ten parents say they are worried about their children’s social and emotional development, about double the percentage of parents who said academic learning is their top worry, according to a new study released this summer (read the full New America report or coverage from Big Heart World). 

When young children go to school, parents’ responsibility for ensuring their early education and development doesn’t get passed off to the teacher. Parents know what happened over the last year and a half; they know where their children struggled and excelled, both academically and emotionally, and these insights must be shared with educators. Likewise, educators and parents/caregivers must work together over time to forge home-school connections that will support children’s learning to address children’s needs, both academic and social-emotional.

Over my 30 years in education, research, and child psychology, I have seen the powerful impact strong parent-teacher relationships have on children.

Take conflict resolution, for example. During my time as a leader of a Boston-based early childhood center, I saw my fair share of frustrated parents and children. Three year olds running from dad, dad becoming angry about his son’s lack of emotional regulation: all parents can relate and empathize.  

However, I also saw the effectiveness of parent-teacher relationships when mediating high intensity situations. I’ve seen parents, educators, and students working through big emotions — calming their bodies, preparing for open dialogue about emotions, sharing feelings, and finding solutions. 

When teachers and parents communicate about what is going on with their child/student, and identify ways to respond, model, and guide, it provides a consistency of messaging and shared expectations. The result: The child feels safe, secure, more in control, with a sense of pride and confidence. Plus, parents and teachers feel a lot better, too.

Ways parents and educators can work together to build strong relationships to help students:
New School Year, New Emotions

Children will bring big emotions to classrooms. For those who have never been to school before, fear and separation anxiety are to be expected. Children may have heightened anxiety about socializing after a year of staying home or being told to interact at a distance. For some, there may be a sense of over-excitement to see friends again.

While these are natural, left unsupported, these emotions can create disruptions within the child, between children, and throughout the classroom. 

As teachers address students’ academic needs, it’s important for parents to help children to identify, understand, and regulate emotions. This provides brain space for other activities such as focusing, problem solving, creative thinking and active listening. 

Parents can get the ball rolling by building on what they have observed over the last year and a half with their children and sharing what they have seen and learned about their children– what makes them most nervous, what helps them calm down, what sparks their curiosity, etc.

These are the critically important conversations that pave the way for an open dialogue between parents and teachers about children’s emotions. 

Consider YOUR Child and His/Her Needs

As we know, starting school is always filled with BIG emotions but this year is uncharted territory for many children and families. Therefore, parents should spend extra time reflecting on their children and their unique needs. 

Consider your child’s school experience before the pandemic and how they’re feeling about going back to school or to school for the first time. Consider the feelings your child experienced during the pandemic and experiences that might have shaped your child’s mindset or skills going into the school year. 

We recommend taking this quiz, developed by the Housman Institute and Big Heart World, to answer questions about your child’s social and emotional development at this moment and to get a list of your child’s unique needs and a personalized toolkit you can use to support your child’s social and emotional development. 

Keep Channels of Communication Open Between Parents and Teachers

Less than half of parents say they’re comfortable communicating with their children’s teachers. Although these conversations can be hard, they are important to support children’s growth.

Once parents have thought through their child’s unique strengths and needs, they’ll be more ready to open a conversation with their child’s new teacher. 

Talk to the teacher at the start of the year and make it your practice to keep the conversation going as the year proceeds. 

Communicating early and often will give teachers and parents the information they need to support children through this transition and promote their healthy growth and learning. 

Parents, over the last year — maybe without even knowing it —  have been prepping or building the communication tools to build strong working relationships with their child’s teacher. Now it is time to put parents’ vast knowledge to use to support their children’s healthy transition and school year success. 

August 5, 2021 by Sara LaHayne 0 Comments

Listen to Learn Empathy

Empathy can be a challenging skill to teach. One great way to infuse discussions about empathy into your daily conversations is through stories that invite children to practice flexing their empathy muscles. 

With stories, characters can model empathetic feelings and behavior in a way that is engaging and fun. Stories can be revisited again and again, allowing children to process and understand big ideas. Interactive stories put children at the center of the action, sparking imagination, creativity, play, and empathy.

When the characters in the story express their feelings, practice managing their feelings, behave in kind (or unkind) ways, or demonstrate care for others, YOU have the opportunity to help your child reflect and make connections with his or her own real-life experiences. 

Stories are magic!

In addition to books, podcasts are another way for your family to experience new stories. 

A Podcast Focused on Empathy
Megan the Mermaid

The Emotion Motion Podcast, a narrative podcast by the organization I founded and lead, Move This World, which is a partner in the Big Heart World initiative, follows the adventures of Megan the Mermaid with her friends and family after a shipwreck pollutes their reef and changes their day-to-day lives. Megan the Mermaid and her friends learn how to navigate the social-emotional challenges of learning at home, making new friends, losing loved ones, and other challenges. Interactive episodes prompt families to practice breathing exercises and other mindfulness techniques, as well as social emotional learning strategies to deepen the skills that support wellbeing. 

Here are a few episodes that will help you boost your little one’s empathy skills, along with a few questions to get the follow-up conversation started:

Hard Shell, Soft Heart

Season 1, Episode 4: Megan the Mermaid and her underwater ocean friends, including a crab named Joey, learn how to deal with some clownfish who take the clowning too far.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever experienced something like what Joey the Crab experienced? What did you do? 
  2. How can you stand up for the people you love? 
  3. Try a Gratitude Circle with your family! What are you grateful for about each person? 
Quarantine Under the Sea

Season 1, Episode 7: After a shipwreck affects their reef, months of working and learning from home starts to become challenging. Megan the Mermaid and her family learn a few new fun ways to make the most of their time together.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you want to bring the same ritual of sharing gratitude and highlights from our day to our family? Why or why not? 
  2. What is your favorite part of being home together? 
  3. What do you think can be challenging about being home together? 
The Tide is Turning

Season 2, Episode 1: As Megan the Mermaid’s undersea world begins to get back to normal, she heads back to school and gets ready to become a big sister. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. When was the last time you felt so excited or nervous that you couldn’t get to sleep? What did you do? 
  2. What did it feel like when you started at a new school or in a new grade and made new friends? Did you feel excited, nervous, shy, or another emotion? 
  3. How did it feel to Tighten and Release? What did you notice in your body? What did you notice in your mind? 
A Wave of Sadness

Season 2, Episode 4: Megan the Mermaid loses someone very close to her and experiences a tidal wave of sadness.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How did you feel listening to this episode? If your feelings were a color, what colors did you feel when you listened to this episode? How did you feel if your feelings were the weather? Think about what your feelings would sound like if they were a sound. Make that sound together!
  2. If you could write Megan a letter, what would you say to her? 
  3. If you could draw Megan a picture, what would you draw? 

The Emotion Motion Podcast is available on Apple, Spotify, GooglePlay, or on the Move This World website.

August 3, 2021 by Jane Park 0 Comments

Parenting With a Big Heart: Growing Empathy

Jane Park as a Child

When I was around five years old, I remember cuddling and watching TV with my Mom on our beige-colored pleather sofa. We stumbled on a special about children living in hunger and I distinctly remember the look on my Mom’s face: sadness, pain. Her eyes swelled up and she reached over to grab a tissue. I asked her why she was crying and she said in Korean, “This makes me feel so sad. No kid should be hungry.” She picked up the phone and made a call to donate money to an organization serving families facing food insecurity.

Looking back, I realize the hurt she felt when she saw those images probably was related to her own struggles growing up during the Korean war and being a first-generation immigrant to the United States from Korea. I often observed my Mom being open and vulnerable about her feelings — whether it was her joyful laughter that could light up a whole room, the look of exhaustion after a long day of work, or her sadness from things happening around her, which even included over-the-top, sad scenes from her favorite Korean soap operas that often made her burst into tears. (If any of you have ever watched a Korean drama, you know what I mean!)

The word that comes to mind when I think of her greatest strength is empathy. Empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions, and to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. 

Growing Into An Empathetic Mother
Jane Park & daughter

When I became pregnant with my daughter, I knew empathy was one of the most important traits and skills I wanted to pass along to her. I also knew that developing empathy would begin with the kind of environment I created at home and the actions I modeled in our everyday life. In a wonderful new book published by Gregg Behr and Ryan Rydzewskin, When You Wonder, You’re Learning, they write: “To become loving and caring people, kids first have to know that they’re worthy of love and care themselves.”

One of the greatest ways we can show that our children are worthy of love and care is by meeting them where they are, sharing in things they seem curious about, and letting them know that their feelings—all their feelings—matter (here’s a great feelings song to sing together).

Yet, this pandemic has stretched us all — our patience, our energy, our resources, our everything! During the times when I felt like things were falling apart, I felt an even greater need to show my kids that “Mommy has it all together.” One afternoon, about three months into the pandemic, my daughter broke down in tears about how hard it was to not see her friends, not having met some of her teachers in person, and having to sit in front of a computer all day. She said, “You wouldn’t understand because you always seem happy and strong.” 

Wow, that hit me hard because while that couldn’t have been further from truth, it must have been what I projected to her. As we know, children take cues from their parents so in that moment, I check my own emotions by taking some time to breathe.

I then asked her to hold my hand and take some deep breaths with me — to help both of us calm down. After our last exhale, I admitted to her that I also have hard moments and she responded, “You do, too?” Suddenly, the heaviness that I noticed in her eyes, her shoulders, and her heart seemed a bit lighter. She was curious to know more and I shared that I struggle too, I feel sad, I feel so, so tired sometimes and talked about some of the things I do to feel better and unstuck in those moments. 

We both agreed that we couldn’t wait for the pandemic to be OVER, but I reminded her that we’ve gone through hard things before, and I know we will get through this together too. The conversation ended with her giving me a hug saying, “I know we will. Okay, can you leave my room now? I have to go back to class.” In that moment when she needed empathy from me, she showed empathy back to me. But it started with her feeling safe to express all her feelings first and all she wanted to know was that she wasn’t alone.

Being Actively Empathetic for Our Kids

Parents today have a different kind of pressure that I don’t think our parents had when we were growing up — there were no Facebook or Instagram feeds showing photo-after-photo of “perfect” families with perfectly groomed hair and outfits, and immaculate living rooms. But I realize that our children don’t expect or want a super-parent, they want to know that we are human too — with our share of feelings, struggles, and mistakes. 

Every parent’s situation is unique but making whatever moment we have count by being present to talk about these feelings with our children — in age-appropriate ways — can help them feel more compassionate towards others and towards themselves. Here are four questions and conversation starters that were helpful to us:

  • How are you feeling today?
  • What are you curious about? What would you like to learn more about?
  • I wonder what it must feel like to be (name an animal, person from different life experience, etc.)
  • Let’s imagine we’re…

Reading books together (check out this Big Heart World book list) can also open up a world of opportunities to learn about others’ perspectives and experiences.

Making the Most of a Hard Time

I’ve been trying to take photos of my kids and our family wearing our masks—at home and out and about—because one day, we’ll look back and remember how we got through a global pandemic, by trying our best, together. As hard and long as our days might be, my hope is that the struggles we face—all in our own ways—are building our children’s sense of empathy towards others going through hard times and sparking creative ways to show care and kindness.  

As my hero Fred Rogers said perfectly, “From the time you were very little, you’ve had people who have smiled you into smiling, people who have talked you into talking, sung you into singing, loved you into loving.” For me, it started with simple moments like cuddling on a pleather sofa watching TV and hearing someone else’s story with my Mom.

Jane Park & KIds

How to Raise an Empathetic Child: Tips From a Mother, Grandmother, and Educator


Brain scientists, educators, economists, and public health experts all agree that building a good foundation for healthy relationships begins at birth. The earlier that your child can adapt and develop key social-emotional skills — like attentiveness, persistence, and impulse control — the sooner they can begin engaging in healthy social interactions.

Young children aren’t necessarily born with the skills to engage in healthy relationships, but they ARE born with the potential to develop them. 

Parents can teach young children empathy by being the example. Show empathy daily to your children, family, and others in your community. When you show empathy, talk it through with your child and be attentive to their feelings. Use language like: “I know that was hard for you, you seemed sad but you’re safe and loved.” This language will help children become aware of their own emotions and feelings and it will help them become empathetic to others.

A Quick Empathy Checklist for Parents:
  1. Explore your child’s emotions together and engage them in imaginative play to learn how to express feelings and better manage their emotions before starting preschool.
  2. Teach your child that it’s okay to have whatever feeling they are having — anger, frustration, embarrassment, fear, even rage —  but that it is not acceptable for their actions to cross over and affect someone else negatively.
  3. Teach your child that it’s good to pay attention to others’ feelings and to try to understand why someone else is having negative feelings. There is probably a good reason their friend is feeling angry or afraid.
  4. Teach your child that it’s never okay for them or anyone else to use their feelings as an excuse to hurt or yell at someone. 

Parents play an important role along with teachers in laying a strong foundation for social-emotional skills that will help children form healthy relationships.

Family Activities to Practice Empathy

Here are two fun family activities that you can do at home with your little one to help teach them about empathy:

Make a Kindness Tree

The Kindness Tree is a symbolic way to record kind and helpful actions. Family members place leaves or notes on the tree to represent kind and helpful acts. Parents can notice these acts by saying, “You __(describe the action)__ so __(describe how it impacted others)__. That was helpful/kind!” For example, “Shubert helped Sophie get dressed so we would be on time for our library playdate. That was helpful!”

The Kindness Tree can also grow with families who have children of mixed ages. Initially, young children simply put a leaf on the tree to represent kind and helpful acts. As children grow and learn to write, the ritual evolves to include writing the kind acts down on leaves or sticky notes. Start your own Kindness Tree with this template.

Families with older children can simply use a Kindness Notebook to record kind acts and read them aloud daily or weekly.

Create a "We Care" Center

The We Care Center provides a way for family members to express caring and empathy for others. Fill your We Care Center with supplies like first aid items (Band-Aids, wet wipes, hand sanitizer, scented lotion), card-making supplies (preprinted cards, paper, crayons, sentence starters), and a tiny stuffed animal for cuddling.

When a friend or family member is ill, hurt, or having a hard time, your family can go to the We Care Basket to find a way to show that person you care. At first, parents might need to suggest how and when to use the We Care Center, but your children will quickly understand the intent. The We Care Center encourages the development of empathy by providing a means for children to offer caring and thoughtfulness to others every day.