10 Fun Ways to Teach Kids Empathy

by Kristen A. Jenson

Can developing empathy and caring attitudes in kids (who are basically me-centered) help to keep them safe online?

I think so, and I’m not alone.

I recently read a blogpost by Amy Mascot who attended a Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) conference. On her blog TeachMama, she shared a list of five actions that parents and other caring adults can take to protect kids online. I want to focus on the first one:

We must teach our children to respect themselves and others.

Amy shares that part of this is teaching kids empathy.

“We need to teach them empathy–-one of the most difficult things to teach our little ones. But we can try to teach empathy by teaching them to think about othersto care about others and to do what we can to help others.”

Why would teaching empathy help kids stay safe online?

Here’s my take. A lot of the online nastiness out there teaches kids selfishness and self-centeredness.

According to Dr. Jill C. Manning, author of What’s the Big Deal About Pornography?, “pornography encourages people to be less respectful towards others because it treats people like objects who simply exist to satisfy another person’s sexual urges or desires.” She goes on to explain, “When people begin to objectify other humans, we lose part of our humanity and diminish our divine ability to love and care for others” (pages 42-43).

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In our book Good Pictures Bad Pictures, we explain that pornography hurts kids because it “lies to your brain about how people should treat one another” and shows people “being mean…and acting like that’s okay.” Which. It’s. Not.

Fight the New Drug reports that, “Research has also found that watching degrading porn… leaves the user feeling less compassion for rape victims.”

In fact, one principle of rape prevention training is to help men increase their empathy for women victims. Empathy training is also used in sexual addiction recovery work. I know of a young girl who received professional counseling after she had viewed pornography for months. A big part of her therapy consisted of “re-humanizing” the actors by seeing them as someone’s daughter or son, someone’s niece or cousin, someone’s friend.

Bullying, which is a growing threat to online safety, is certainly devoid of empathy. And violent video games, where kids get to virtually shoot and kill for hours, only makes kids less empathetic in my humble opinion.

With all of these negative influences, it’s easy to see why today’s parents need to proactively teach their kids empathy. A big challenge, but worth the effort! It only makes sense that an empathetic and caring child will be better able to reject bullying and pornography as abnormal and wrong.

So how to you teach kids to care about others?

Here are 10 ideas to try out:

Teach your kids to express their gratitude. Yes, I’m talking about thank you notes again! Every year on the day after Christmas, I pull out the colored paper, stamps & ink, stickers, markers and other crafting supplies, and we make thank you cards. My kids used to glue a wallet-sized school photo of themselves onto their cards to grandparents, aunts and uncles and family friends. Very personalized and a fun tradition!

Model giving gifts to strangers. Every year we find a holiday “giving tree” and go shopping for local needy families. Encouraging your kids to contribute their own funds for this will increase their “ownership” and excitement. Help them picture what the recipients will say and feel when they open their gifts. Pure joy!

Get involved in community service by logging onto JustServe.org. Of course we’ve all heard about dishing out holiday dinners to the homeless, but seriously, in some places you have to sign up years in advance for that privilege! Why not start a tradition of year-round community service? To find service opportunities in your area, check out the new website JustServe. “JustServe.org links you to service opportunities in your community so you can make a difference wherever you are and however you want to serve.”

Write “Happy Day Notes” to cheer people up (and notice how good it makes you and your kids feel). For a great example and a free pdf, check out this enlightening and entertaining TeachMama blogpost.

Play Ding-dong Doorbell Ditch. My kids loved doing this! Gather some plates of goodies, add a nice (anonymous) note and jump in the car. As long as you live in a safe neighborhood, do this after dark. Pull up past the target’s home (maybe even around the corner), and let your kids run up to the porch, deposit the goodies, ring the doorbell and RUN like crazy back to the car, where you quietly pull away hoping they don’t see you (or hear everyone laughing and gasping for breath!).

Give someone the 12 Days of Christmas. If your family celebrates Christmas, consider setting up 12 small gifts and delivering one each day starting on December 13th (if you want to end on Christmas Eve) or December 14th (if you want to end on Christmas Day). A friend of mine received these small gifts the year she went through a difficult divorce. It made a huge difference for her and her two daughters to know others were thinking of their family.

Give someone a “Heart Attack.” This is fun for Valentine’s Day, but can be done year round. Cut a bunch of hearts out of colored paper and write kind, encouraging messages on them. Stick them onto the door of the person you’ve chosen and ring the doorbell. When they answer, ask them if you can help them in some way (raking leaves or pulling weeds) or invite them to a family dinner or social event.

Make freezer meals for someone in need. This could be a fun family activity that won’t take too much time but could be a huge help for someone who has a family member in the hospital or who just needs some TLC. I love my out of print (but still available used) Frozen Assets Lite & Easy: Cook for A Day, Eat for a Month book, but there are cookbooks and websites galore available to help you.

Zachs_Shack_lemondade_stand-LDS-PhilanthropiesHelp raise funds for a good cause. Because our son was in a wheelchair, we can empathize with how important and liberating wheelchairs are. Over the years, we’ve done a few small fund-raisers and donated to The Wheelchair Foundation as well as to LDS Charities Wheelchair Initiative. Zack, a young boy, has far surpassed our efforts with his annual lemonade stand fundraiser—check out his story and website ItFeelsGreatToGive.org. Other families enjoy participating in walks, races, car washes, auctions or bake sales to raise money for non-profits or to help a family defray medical costs.

Visit people. Being in a hospital or a care center can be a lonely and discouraging experience. Several years ago, I teamed up with another mom and we brought our kids to a retirement home to play their musical instruments. The residents loved it! Once when my sisters joined me for my birthday, I dragged them to an assisted living center where we sang, joked and chatted with the residents. I honestly think it was the most fun we had all weekend! All you have to do is to call ahead and speak with the recreational director (who will love to hear from you!). Sometimes you can even bring your pets!

Have fun encouraging your little philanthropists!

Helping kids learn to care for others is one way to enlarge their humanity and fortify them against the de-humanizing influences of pornography. Do you agree? How do you help your kids to develop empathy for others?

Kristen Jenson
Kristen A. Jenson is the founder of Protect Young Minds and author of Good Pictures Bad Pictures: Porn-Proofing Today's Young Kids. Kristen enjoys speaking, writing and anything else that will help empower kids to reject pornography. Kristen earned a bachelor’s degree in English Literature, and a master’s degree in Organizational Communication. Kristen currently lives with her husband in Washington State, where she enjoys growing a vegetable garden, watching Masterpiece Theater, and taking long walks with friends who tolerate her incessant talking about you know what. Above all else, her husband and three children are her greatest treasures.
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