Can Parents Teach Their Children to be Empathetic?

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

It seems as though there is a lack of empathy and concern for the welfare of others in today’s world. This is evidenced by the rash of mass shootings we have witnessed since the 1980’s. Estimates are that since the 80s there have been more than 60 mass shootings similar to the one recently experienced in Connecticut where 20 young children and 6 teachers were killed. The question that must be asked is if empathy can be taught? According to Gwen Dewar, PhD, and writer for Greater Good web site, the answer is yes. She explains this in her article, “The Case for Teaching Empathy: why we shouldn’t expect empathy to just emerge” She states clearly that empathy is shaped by experience.

Dr. Dewar defines empathy as “the sharing of another persons’s feelings. In other words, it’s important to identify with and understand how another person feels. Part of this is distinguishing one’s own feelings from that of another individual. In this there is a recognition that there are similarities between the other persons feelings and one’s own. Sometimes the fact that two people have experienced similar circumstances makes it easier to empathize.


There has been a recent example of the failure of empathy on the part of the House of Representatives in Washington D.C. The north east coast of the U.S was devastated by super storm Sandy. In New York and New Jersey countless numbers of families lost their homes as a result of powerful ocean surges sweeping them away of completely flooding them with ocean water. Now, months later, these victims continue to be stranded and homeless because of Washington D.C.’s failure to emergency funds to help these people. In point of fact, members of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives actually voted against allocating money for the northeastern part of the nation. Some of the members of the House actually experienced similar devastation from storm that hit their states. In each case, they asked for money for their state and the government met their needs. However, many of the Representatives who voted against funds for the northeast came from southern states along the same coastline as the north. Even though they had experienced similar storms they failed to empathize with people who came from a different part of the country.

On a family basis, this is where good parenting comes in. Children who have secure attachments and trusting relationships with parents have a greater ability to empathize without being taught to do so. Nevertheless that teaching is necessary, especially through the role modelling of parents.

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Dewar gives as an example the fact that Japanese parents teach their children to be sensitive to the feelings of others. As she points out, children taught and expected to respond to the needs of others and are not allowed to ignore others.

My wife and I had an experience in a restaurant in which parents allowed their two young kids to run around and disturb other diners. They never corrected the kids and never pointed out to them that other people were wanted to eat in peace. These kids were not being given a chance to recognize the needs of others. In other words, they were never given the chance to learn by being asked to think about how the other people must feel. They were not taught to empathize with the diners in the restaurant.

In a similar way, we recently witnessed a situation in which a 3 year old was allowed to ignore the presence of other adults when he came home from school. These other adults happened to be his grandparents and aunt. His mother did not insist that he say “hello” and even give them a hug by reminding him the grandma, grandpa and aunt feel sad when he doesn’t say “hello.”

In my opinion, more important then the presence of guns at home and more than violent movies and video games, is the failure of some parents to help their kids learn empathy, kindness and respect for others.

Perhaps the most important way we teach these things to our children is by modelling these behaviors. Parents who demonstrate generosity by giving to less fortunate people are role modelling kindness. Another way is by helping friends and neighbors when they are in need of that help. Having children involved in these things with their parents is most important. What better way to help kids understand the fact that other people may be poor and hungry than by assisting parents serve in soup kitchens. What better way is there to learn to be sympathetic to the plight of other less fortunate people. It’s also important for kids to learn that there are other ways of thinking and living than the way they do so and that is a good thing. Tolerance of differences between people in a diverse world is quite important. In fact, having kids along while parents are being social with others is a good opportunity for them to learn how to interact with others.

Can an empathetic person be a mass murderer? I don’t think so.

What are your comments about teaching empathy? Do you agree that it can be taught or are you skeptical?

Your comments are welcome.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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