Empathy fundamentals for kids

Imagine all the brilliant and effective innovations that would result if all adults approached problem solving by truly understanding the needs of the people we’re serving (and ideally bringing those people to the table) before creating a solution.  Being a changemaker requires empathy, and we’re not just talking about being kind or understanding.  When it comes to being a great innovator, Galileo defines empathy as:

  • Listening to other people’s ideas
  • Being patient with other points of view
  • Incorporating and building on other people’s ideas
  • Building relationships across difference

Reinforcing those ideas with your kids is important.  However, apart from just saying these things outright, there are plenty of ways to practice internalizing others’ points of view. Here are a few scenarios to illustrate how you might do this with your child. Let’s say . . .

  • Your child wants to make a gift for a friend/family member
  • You’re going to renovate or redecorate a room in your house
  • Your child is working on a school project with a peer
  • Your child wants to do charitable work for a person or organization in need

Try these strategies from David and Tom Kelley’s book Creative Confidence:

  • Show me: This is great exercise when you’re making something new (or changing something existing) that someone is going to use. If you’re redecorating a room, for example, take some time before moving furniture or buying new decor to ask the people who are going to use it—family members, neighbors, friends—and to show you what they do in the space. Have them walk around in it, sit down, turn on lights, etc. Take notes on what they really do, rather than assuming what they might do, to help you plan your design.
  • Think aloud: This pairs well with the “show me” technique above, and simply involves having your users narrate what they’re doing and what they’re thinking about as they do it to help you better understand their motivations and reasoning. Then make your project more inclusive by inviting those users to help with the final design.
  • Draw it: Good for a school project with a peer, this method involves each kid asking the other to visualize their final product through a drawing. The drawings can be simple, but can help reveal how each one thinks about the project they’re embarking on, clarifying points of difference from the start and helping to prioritize their activities.
  • Five Whys: This works well for creating something that addresses a person’s true needs, like a gift or a charitable effort. If your child wants to do something to give back, for example, have them ask themselves about a problem they want to help solve, followed by a series of whys in response to each answer. This encourages them to examine and express underlying reasons or causes to get to the real thing they want to solve. One kid-changemaker (and Galileo camper) we know named Justin had a concern about the planet’s dwindling frog population, then asked “why,” found that their extinction was linked to habitat destruction, asked “why” again to find that a big part of that destruction was plastic waste and now works to clean up plastic waste in Cameroon, a considerable problem there, by transforming plastic trash into reusable treasure.

Make empathy part of your family’s regular conversation
Make empathy an ongoing part of your daily life with a few simple activities to help the whole family practice (with thanks to Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project for the first five):

  • Hold family meetings. Hold a family meeting whenever you’re dealing with a challenge or conflict, using it as an opportunity for everyone to practice both giving and receiving empathy. When you meet, give your kids a voice and listen carefully to their views, while also encouraging them to take the perspective of other family members.
  • Encourage empathy for peers. Ask kids about their classmates and other peers. If they’re experiencing a conflict with someone, ask them to tell you about their own perspective, and to consider where their friend/classmate is coming from. What circumstances or perspectives might help explain the conflict from the other person’s point of view?
  • Reflect on empathy and caring. When you’re together, comment when someone exhibits strong empathy—or shows a lack of empathy—either in your daily life or in a book or on television. Discuss why acts of empathy are important and why lacking empathy can be harmful.
  • Discuss ethical dilemmas. Where appropriate, talk through ethical dilemmas with your kids that help them appreciate various perspectives, for example, “Should I invite a new friend to my birthday party even though she won’t know anyone else?”
  • Support doing with. Encourage your kids not just to “do for” others, but to “do with” others, working with diverse groups of people to respond to school, community or global problems.
  • Try a one-month empathy challenge. Try the Changemaker Families 1-Month Challenge, with suggestions for specific things to say, do and try each week of the month (and why) to strengthen your family’s empathy skills.

Being empathetic isn’t always easy, but it’s essential. Whether you want to make a small change like remodeling a room, or a big change like a better world, you have to be able to see things through someone else’s eyes.