Family Matters

Teaching children about social responsibility is key to nurturing empathy


Even at an early age children are listening to parental conversations about people who need help.

Young children may hear about everything from a neighbor who can no longer manage household chores to the Japanese who are trying to rebuild their lives after a major earthquake and tsunami.

As a parent you want to channel this curiosity so your children become empathetic and generous to others, but you may wonder how to develop these characteristics.

Setting a good example is the first and obvious step. But it’s just as important to explain why you’re taking action, say child development experts.

“I think parents should talk to their children about why they’re engaged in those [charitable] behaviors so they know what you’re doing and why,” says Marnie Heister, Ph.D.

“When Dad shovels the walk for a senior, tell the children why and how it makes you feel when you help others,” says Heister, professor and chair of the department of psychology, Misericordia University, Dallas, Pa.

You can also get involved in charitable activities your children can relate to, show them ways to use their special talents and encourage them to come up with their own ideas, say the experts.

Giving money to a charity may be too abstract for young children.

Instead concentrate on efforts that are easy to grasp and resonate with children, says Judith Myers-Walls, Ph.D., Purdue Extension Child Development and Family Studies, Purdue University, Lafayette, Ind.

For example, instead of donating to a shelter, help out as a family, providing bag lunches.

If you do make a monetary donation, such as one to the Red Cross, tell your children the ways in which people may benefit from your contribution. Your story makes the gesture more concrete, according to Heister.

Children can make a difference by sharing their skills.

Those who sing or play a musical instrument may enjoy performing at senior centers. Animal lovers can volunteer at shelters (check for age restrictions and parental supervision first). Your computer whiz can help a senior set up a Facebook page.

Be enthusiastic and open to your children’s suggestions as well.

Children who have a say in decisions about how to help others become personally invested in the outcome, which can have lasting benefits.

“We want children to be intrinsically motivated,” says Heister.

Keep in mind that giving to your kids is the best place to start. Children are more apt to be generous if they don’t feel deprived, Myers-Walls says.

“Children need to feel they have enough. If children feel siblings are always taking their stuff, they want to protect them, not share,” Myers-Walls says.

Once you assure your child he is secure, nurture his empathy.

You can point to another child seems lonely or unhappy and suggest that the child may need something.

But don’t tell your child what to do.

“Let the child imagine what he can do to help,” Myers-Walls says.

© CTW Features