Empathy, according to Dr. Daniel Goleman, is one of the 5 components of EQ, or emotional intelligence. How can we create an environment where our kiddos can develop this? Admittedly, I often feel as though my own children are wrapped in themselves, their iPads, and when the next time food with appear. Empathy doesn’t seem to come naturally. Other times, empathy rolls out of them like they were built for it. My younger kids recently made a card and included a $20 bill for their older sister when she was sad. They wanted her to feel better. How can we encourage the latter behaviour to increase its frequency?

In the quest for creating this environment, let’s be clear. What is empathy, exactly? According to Daniel Goleman, empathy can be divided into 3 categories, when referring to emotional intelligence.

  1. Cognitive empathy is being able to understand what someone else is thinking (reading nonverbal cues) and how he might be thinking.
  2. Emotional empathy is the ability to feel what another is feeling. If someone is distressed, you are able to feel distress with them.
  3. Compassionate empathy makes a difference. Instead of stopping at being aware of another’s feelings and even feeling what they feel, it goes farther. It takes action and helps wherever possible for a better outcome for another. Seems to me this is the one to aim for.

How do we create an environment where our kids can look beyond themselves, read other people’s feelings, and take action to help others? If you figure it out, let me know. But short of that, there are many ways that are researched and proven to help teach our kids how to be empathetic.

One of these…PETS!

Now. I grew up with a fish that lasted a month before it jumped into my dollhouse, went kaput, and was flushed down the toilet. I did not grow up with pets. But somehow I married an animal lover and currently find myself with 45 animals on the premises. And that doesn’t even include the children. 45 little animal souls that rely on my kids’ care and attention to stay alive. Dozens of chickens, multiple cats and dogs and, most recently, a lizard.

All of them express their needs in various ways and respond differently based on how we treat them. None of them speak to us, so every cue we read from them is nonverbal. Granted, a chicken pecking at my daughter’s feet for food is a cue that doesn’t directly translate to her ability to empathize with and help her friend in distress, but it is the beginnings of becoming accustomed to paying attention to needs beyond herself.

The first thing my 5 year old does after waking up in the mornings is look for her kitten, which is actually a barn cat that finds its way into the house every single day. She chases it down, picks it up, and snuggles it carefully and gently until she herself is ready for the day. She makes eye contact. She talks with the kitten. She loves it and feels it in return. Judge us, but she claims that her kitten is her best friend. I see her developing a pathway toward empathy, life beyond herself, and care of others.

My observations go beyond these and cover stories after stories of reasons why I continue to buy dog food and keep on shovelling chicken poop. But don’t take it from just us and our experiences. The Washington Post wrote a great article on this very subject and is full of great reasons why having a pet can help our kids develop empathy. You can check it out here:


Oh, and if you need access to a pet, I have a few extras I could give to the cause.