There’s a 4-step process to teaching empathy that every working parent should know

A woman plays with a child in an anemones field near Kibbutz Beeri in southern Israel, February 8, 2021.
A woman plays with a child in an anemones field near Kibbutz Beeri in southern Israel, February 8, 2021.
Image: Reuters/Amir Cohen
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Empathy comes naturally to a lot of people. It’s easy enough to feel bad for an employee who’s struggling with child care issues, or to bristle at the injustice of a colleague getting passed over for a well-deserved promotion.

What’s far trickier is translating that empathy into action. On that front, Bill Drayton—the founder and CEO of the global nonprofit Ashoka, which identifies and supports social entrepreneurs—has some ideas.

Empathy is the cornerstone philosophy of Ashoka, given that, as Drayton says, it’s impossible to do social good without understanding the problems that people face. As part of its focus on empathy, the nonprofit runs a workshop for businesses, entitled “Your Kids,” which teaches a four-step process for coaching kids on how to empathize with others, and how to channel that empathy toward productive solutions.

The goal of the workshop isn’t just to help children grow up to be caring and proactive members of society, Drayton says; it actually benefits parents, too. Once parents have shown their kids how to help others, they’re likely to see more possibilities for doing the same in their own lives—and at their companies.

“When you help people get their power to give, you have a workforce that can actually function in this world,” Drayton says.

The four-step process for teaching empathy to kids

To understand the four-step process, it’s helpful to begin with an everyday scenario: For example, a young child has just hit her younger brother on the head. This aggravating moment, Drayton says, can also be “an opportunity to help her practice empathy-based living for the good of all.”

1: Prompt your child to think about how their feelings shape their behavior

“Get your daughter to think about her emotions consciously, and their implications for action,” Drayton suggests. In the above scenario, he’d suggest responding with a comment like, “You must have been pretty upset when you did that.”

2: Ask your child to imagine another person’s feelings

This might involve a question like, “How do you think your brother felt when you did that?”

3: Ask your child to consider how the other person responded

The next question, Drayton says, is: “Why do you think he reacted the way he did?”

4: Ask your child to think about solutions

The final, and perhaps most important part, urges the child to think about how she can help address her brother’s pain: “What should we do now?”

Drayton says it’s important to use this four-step process not only when children do something wrong, but when they do something right. “Four hours later, if she does something very generous with the postman, say, ‘I’m really proud of you,’” and go through the process again.

How empathy translates into action

The four-step process also works for older children, though the questions and scenarios get more complex with age. Drayton offers the example of a 12-year-old child who comes home feeling upset about the way the children of immigrants are treated.

First, he says, affirm to the child that their thoughts and feelings are valid: “I’m really proud of you for seeing that problem.” Then ask questions that help them to think about how they might personally help fix the issue. Remember to be supportive: “Oh, that’s a pretty interesting idea, why don’t you get your friends together and do this?”

By giving kids the message that they have the ability to help others even at a young age, Drayton says, parents set them up for long-term success.

The hardest and most important part of this exercise, Drayton says, is to tamp down the impulse to get involved personally, or allow other adults to take charge.

“Don’t take over, don’t let her brother take over, don’t let some teacher take over,” he says. “It’s got to be her dream, her team, her changed world. That’s the heart of this.”

All this is aimed at shaping both kids and parents into what Drayton calls “changemakers”—not necessarily social entrepreneurs, but people who feel empowered to tackle problems and advocate for the collective good. In a workplace context, this might look like anything from suggesting ways to make products more accessible to disabled people to coming up with new ideas to motivate employees.

“When your daughter gets her power and you have succeeded as the parent, that sinks in,” Drayton says. “If my daughter has this power, what about me?