How To Foster Sympathy In Your Children At A Young Age

How to Foster Sympathy in Your Children at a Young Age

Parents and teachers might often wonder how to teach children caring toward others -- more so when the world feels full of disagreement, conflict, and aggression.

Image by Seita (Shutterstock).

As development psychologists, we know that children start to pay attention to the emotions of others from an early age. They actively take into account others' emotions when making decisions about how to respond to them.

Does this mean that children feel sympathy for others from an early age? And is there a way in which parents can teach their children to be sympathetic?

What is Sympathy?

A feeling of concern for another person, or sympathy, is based on a comprehension of the unfortunate situation and emotional state of another. It often accompanies feelings of pity for the distressed other.

Sympathy is different from empathy, which is more of an "emotional contagion." If you feel like crying when you see someone else cry, you are experiencing empathy. You might even be overwhelmed by that person's distress.

And unlike empathy, sympathy involves some distance. So, rather than being overwhelmed, feelings of sympathy might allow individuals to engage in prosocial behaviours, such as helping or sharing.

We start to show concern for others from very early on. For example, babies show basic signs of concern for others in their distressed responses to another infant's cry, although in the case of babies, it might also be possible that they do not fully understand the self as a separate entity from others. So, their cry might simply be a case of emotional contagion.

Either way, these are early forms of how we show concern. Later in our lives, these advance into more sophisticated sympathy experiences. Rather than just crying for the other crying baby, children begin to think about ways to alleviate the baby's distress.

This sympathetic response becomes possible because they start to incorporate cognitive understanding of the situation the other person is in. Sympathy goes beyond mere feelings of sadness for others' distress. Rather, it guides our actions.

What Makes Kids Share

How do children at different ages engage differently in prosocial behaviours based on their sympathy?

To understand, we conducted a study to see how children shared. In our study, 160 four- and eight-year-old children received six equally attractive stickers. They were then given an opportunity to share any number of those stickers with a hypothetical child in a picture.

Children were shown multiple pictures that depicted four different conditions, which included "needy" recipients and "not needy" recipients. The needy recipient was described as,

"She/he has no toys," "She/he is sad."

And the non-needy or neutral recipient as,

"This girl/boy is four/ eight years old, just like you."

What we found was that children tended to share more stickers with a needy recipient. What we also found was that eight-year-old children shared on average 70 per cent of their stickers with the needy recipient (versus 47 per cent with the neutral recipient). The four-year-olds shared only 45 per cent of their stickers in the needy condition (versus 33 per cent in the neutral condition).

What makes eight-year-olds share more than two-thirds of their own stickers with the needy recipient, while four-year-olds share only about half of them?

Sharing Thoughtfully

The answer to this question can be found in children's growing abilities to put themselves in others' shoes. Besides feeling concern for others, being able to comprehend the circumstances of others can enhance helping or sharing behaviours that are sensitive toward the condition of others.

For example, as our study demonstrated, older children shared more stickers with a peer who looked sad and had fewer toys even by giving up their own. This is different from simply sharing equal numbers of stickers with peers regardless of each one's personal circumstance.

The point is that children could show emotional empathy early on, but as they develop "perspective-taking ability," they tend to show higher levels of sympathy. Perspective-taking ability means knowing that others can have desire, knowledge and emotion that are different from their own and that those come from their point of view.

For example, a child who wants to play baseball would understand that his friend has a different desire -- perhaps to play football. Or that another friend who is smiling in front of his parents is, in fact, hiding his disappointment because he did not get the birthday gift he really wanted.

In this regard, a recent review study that summarized the findings of 76 studies conducted during the last four decades from 12 different countries came up with the following findings:

The study looked at a total of 6,432 children aged between two and 12 years to find out how children's perspective-taking abilities and prosocial behaviour were related to each other. Results revealed that children with higher ability to take another person's point of view showed more prosocial behaviours, such as comforting, helping, and sharing.

Furthermore, when they compared preschool-aged children between two and five years of age versus children aged six and above, they found that this relationship became stronger as children got older.

As children are increasingly able to use contextual information they become more selective about when and how to help others. That is what our study showed as well: Eight-year-old children take into account the recipient information and make more selective sharing decisions guided by their sympathy.

Enhancing Sympathy in Children

The question is, could we encourage children to become sympathetic toward others? And could children learn the best way to help keeping in mind the unique circumstances of others?

The ability to feel concern for others is one of the key characteristics that make us human. Sympathy binds individuals together and increases cooperation among the members of the society. This has been observed in developmental research. For example, in a long-term study conducted with 175 children, we found that when children showed high levels of sympathy at age seven, they were better accepted by peers and shared more with others up to age nine.

So, one of the things that we can do to facilitate sympathy in young children according to developmental research is to use what is called inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning implies that parents and teachers emphasise the consequences of a child's behaviour during a social interaction. For example, when a child grabs a toy from his friend, the caregiver could ask the child:

"How would you feel if your friend took away a toy from you?"

This can encourage children to reflect on how their own actions may affect others' thoughts and feelings. This can facilitate sympathy.

Researcher Brad Farrant, who, along with his colleagues, studied the relationship between parenting and children's helping and caring behaviours, came up with similar findings.

Farrant studied 72 children between ages four and six. The study found that children showed more actions of helping and caring when mothers encouraged their children to see things from another child's perspective. For example, if a child was "picked on" by another child, mothers who encouraged perspective-taking would guide their child to try and work out why the other child was picking on the child.

Telling a child he should help and share with others could be one way of teaching him how to be a good member of a society. However, thoughtfully engaging in conversations with the child about others' needs, feelings, and desires could go one step further -- it could help children develop sympathy.

Here's how to raise a child to be sympathetic [The Conversation] Tina Malti is an Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Toronto. Ju-Hyun Song is a Post Doctoral Fellow, University of Toronto.

This post originally appeared on The Conversation.


    This is a fantastic topic. This topic is near and dear to my heart (so to speak). Maybe it's just me, but this article does not match my understanding (what I would call common understanding) and it subtlety misses the mark. However, I agree with what the article's conclusion.

    Sympathy is mostly synonymous with feeling sorry for, not necessarily understanding. Empathy is (usually a deeper understanding) achieved by being able to feel and understand that situation (I've been there and I know how you are feeling).

    To quote a great reference, "Of the two, empathy is a deeper feeling, but sympathy can be just as honest and heartfelt. However, empathy can forge a deeper and more meaningful connection, thus serving as a bridge for greater communication between individuals or between a leader and his or her followers."

    Like the message in Ender's Game, if you truly want to understand, you need to put yourself in another's place. Sympathy (while distant, as the article says) can't do that. The downside of sympathy is that you won't understand why/how/what.

    So why would I recognise sympathy over empathy for kids? There are many reasons, but, putting it shallowly (generalising), kids can be absolutely brutal and are not good at regulating themselves when they aren't being watched*. The exposure to collateral damage (as I have witnessed many times in kids in free play (uncontrolled activities) can be much worse). However, by looking for indicators of "does someone need help", they can still be seen as caring without the same emotional investment and close bond. Socially, this usually pays off. This detachment is much easier for kids (and most adults) to manage and regulate.

    * anyone that has lead groups of children knows that under supervision, kids behave one way. A short time after the supervision stops (especially with context change), behaviour reverts to something less desirable (I'll let the experts argue that idea as it's a separate topic in itself). The stickers example works well when prompted/monitored (Heidelberg principle), but often (not always) not when unsupervised. This is the challenge that we face as mentors, teachers, adults. You can build that behaviour within your sphere of influence by consistency and leading by example. However, you can't control what happens in the yard.

    There's another level to all of this that I'm not quite sure how to capture succinctly - but I lump it under Political Correctness. I recently visited a mixed primary school with a female principal. I asked why there were so many photos of women and girls all over the school (it was striking how many there were). I'll paraphrase the answer as "girl power". When I asked how such a decision would influence all students (ie. manipulating the surroundings to overwhelmingly promote a gender), I received some glib I'll paraphrase as "who cares" (noting that such prejudice was unprecedented until a few years ago). In an environment where such callousness has been allowed to thrive (and is actively promoted by media and government), it is very difficult to teach children empathy when such attitudes of hate (lets not mince words), callousness and disrespect are nurtured by those in leadership.
    It saddens me to say that today's society is far less empathetic, but even more so, I'm disheartened that people can't afford to be empathetic when such prejudice is openly encouraged and promoted. When you open yourself to such people, you genuinely feel their hatred and it's an awful way to feel. How we've become so callous (and proud of it) is beyond me.

    In summary, it's better to stick with sympathy than empathy. There's less investment and more reward to be gained, especially when peers don't play ball. I recognise that is a Machiavellian attitude (I'm sad to say).

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