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Empathic Kids
by Michele Borba, Ed.D.

Author of Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing

One strong characteristic of morally intelligent children is that they are empathic and concerned about others. An important point to remember is that while our kids are born with the potential for empathy and generosity, those traits aren't guaranteed. Researchers have discovered that a strong commonality of those kids who acquire them is how they were raised. That means parents can be enormously influential in helping their kids be concerned about others needs by prioritizing it in their homes. It's a slow, gradual evolution, but if you are consciously boosting those traits as a parent now, chances are much stronger you'll have success and your child will develop those traits.

Boost the concept of gratitude into your daily living. We seem to have a lot of "gimme" kids these days and it's because they've learned that their parents will oblige their every whim. So don't! Establish guidelines and stick to them. My girlfriend noticed her mother-in-law was overindulging her kids in material gifts and finally told her that was not the kind of kids she wanted to raise. She asked her to please reduce their number of presents and put the money instead in their college fund. The key here is the mom determined how she wanted her kids to turn out, and then consciously begin raising them that way. Stretch your child to think about other people's concerns and needs. Here are a few ideas that might help you:
  • Have her switch roles. The next time there's a conflict between your child and a friend (or between you and your child) ask her to stop and think how the other person would feel if the roles were reversed. Then ask her to talk about the problem AS IF SHE WERE THE OTHER PERSON. "What would the other person say and do?" If she is very young, it is helpful to use puppets so that each puppet can represent the person in the conflict. It builds empathy.

  • Call attention to insensitive behavior. Any time your child acts unkindly, use it as an opportunity to help him become more sensitive to the feelings of other people. Just point out the impact of her actions: "Telling Bert to leave because you wanted to play with Sally was inconsiderate. How would YOU feel?" "Not asking Daddy if he wanted to watch a TV show was unkind. How would you feel?"

  • Be an example of generosity. Try to find natural ways to help her "give" to others so she understands the joy giving can bring. Start by doing it yourself and having her watch and do it with you. Here are a couple of ideas: "The neighbor is sick; let's make an extra bowl of soup and bring it to her." "Daddy is so tired; let's surprise him and stack the newspapers so he doesn't have to. " Make giving natural and fun but help her learn to GIVE.

  • Expect him to share. This is one of the first moral behaviors we need to tune up in our kids starting at around 2 or 3 years of age. When he is two you can structure his sharing: "It's his turn, then your turn, then his turn." Little kids sometimes need an oven timer as a reminder that the other person should still be allowed to play with the toy. Before friends come over, structure "sharing" by asking him: "What things will you share with your friend?" "What do you think he would like to play?" Put away things that are very special that may cause problems. What's important on this one is to help your child learn to think of others' needs and feelings.

Dr. Michele Borba is an educational consultant and author who has conducted parent and teacher seminars to over half a million participants. Her latest book is Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing (Jossey Bass Publishers). Information on her publications and seminars can be accessed through her Web site, www.moralintelligence.com.

© 2001 by Michele Borba. Please contact for permission to reprint.

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