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Empathy at Home

Five tips for how parents can start fun conversations at home about empathy

By Mary O'Donohue

Mary O’Donohue is the best-selling author of the award winning parenting book, When You Say “Thank You,” Mean It, and has been featured in Parents Magazine, AOL’s Parent Dish, and contributes regularly to The Chicago Tribune’s Parent ‘Hood column. Mary has appeared on numerous TV programs including “The Better Show” in New York and is interviewed regularly on radio shows across the country. In addition, Mary speaks to enthusiastic audiences about the power of extraordinary character from childhood onward. Mary and her husband Jim have been married for seventeen years and have two children, Connor and Grace; a teen and a ‘tween. In addition to writing, Mary enjoys a successful career in television production, including 12 seasons with the Oprah Winfrey Show. She is an avid traveler, having spent time in China, Turkey, Greece, Malta, Spain, Ireland, England, Wales, France, and Italy. Mary donates a portion of her author’s net profits to charities benefiting families and education. She can be reached through her website:

February 12, 2013

Once when my son was in grammar school, he had to go to the doctor’s office for a medical test. He was scared. After all, it would involve needles, and what kid wants to experience that? I tried to reassure him the night before that he had nothing to be afraid of, but it didn’t seem to help. What made all the difference, however, was a kind gesture from his little sister. The morning of the test, she made a special care package for him with a stuffed animal, a snack, a juice box, and a note. She filled the note with encouraging words, and my daughter even included a quote about self-confidence that she found in a book. That care package, and more importantly the empathy and compassion from his little sister, turned out to be the reassurance he needed. She put herself in her brother’s place and provided the very things that would make him feel safe and comforted. He got through the test with flying colors.

As parents, helping our children develop empathy is one of the most important lessons we can teach them. Since kids learn by doing, I recommend these five fun and engaging activities to teach our children lessons about empathy in a way that will make a positive impression and stay with them as they grow up:

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1. One way to do this is through an exercise called “Walk in My Shoes.” Everyone in the family gets a turn trying to experience what the world is like from another person's perspective by actually walking (or trying to walk) in the shoes of a sibling or parent. It can get very silly, which makes this experience stand out more than a simple conversation. So if a 5-year-old girl puts on her 7-year-old sister's shoes, she then has to put herself into her sister's place and imagine (and act out) what it's really like to be her. Ask your child some questions like “How would you feel if your little sister wants to play with you, but you’re watching TV or hanging out with friends?” She should respond as she imagines her older sister would.  Then have the older girl try to put on her younger sibling's shoes, even if they don’t really fit. Ask your older daughter, pretending to be her little sister, “Do you admire your older sis and want to play with her all the time, even when she's busy with friends and TV?” At the end of the exercise, ask your kids to remember how they felt when they walked in their sibling's (or parent's) shoes, and encourage them to keep that in mind as they interact with family members in the future.

2. Another idea is to role-play with your children and have them “Switch Places.” Write out some simple, everyday scenarios and have two children act them out, or have your child take one role while you take the other. Here is an example:

  • Role #1 is a new first grader at school who is being left out at recess. How are you feeling as that person?
  • Role #2 is a child who sometimes gets made fun of but is being more included now that there is a new kid in class. Should you embrace your new place in the "in" crowd or find ways to include your new classmate?

3. I also believe reading helps foster empathy because we can’t help but put ourselves in the place of the characters in a good book. So, consider starting an Empathy Book Club in your family or among your child's friends. Find books in which the transformative power of empathy plays a key role, like Hey Little Ant by Phillip and Hannah Hoose, Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Deed by Emily Pearson, and My Name is Not Monkey Girl by Miriam L. Jacobs.

4. If your children love to curl up and watch a good movie, start a family movie night once a week and feature wonderful stories highlighting empathy and kindness such as Charlotte’s Web, Horton Hears a Who, The Secret World of Arriety, and How To Train Your Dragon.

5. Can cookies teach children about empathy? “Kindness Cookies” can. Simply follow a recipe for traditional fortune cookies, but replace the fortunes with ways your family can express empathy in your everyday lives like:

  • “Give someone in your family a hug.”
  • “Smile and say hello to a classmate you don’t usually talk to today.”
  • “Help a family member with a chore.”

The cookies can be a special dessert or occasional lunch box treat or can be frozen and taken out any time. Though I’m not suggesting giving kids a lot of sugar, this can be a fun and unexpected way to get them thinking about empathy and living with kindness.

Mix and match these ideas on a regular basis with your family to inspire empathy, and when you notice your children putting empathy into action, acknowledge and foster it -- so that empathy becomes a part of who they are and how they live every day.

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