Building Empathy: 10 Strategies for Raising Caring Kids

February 17, 2016

For child and family psychologist Richard Weissbourd, "What matters most as a parent is not whether my wife and I are 'perfect' role models or how much we talk about values, but the hundreds of ways — as living, breathing, imperfect human beings — we influence our children in the complex, messy relationships we have with them day to day."

As a father of three — as well as his work as a renowned child and family psychologist on the faculty of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and School of Education — Weissbourg understands the challenges parents face on a daily basis. In his book, The Parents We Mean to Be, Richard Weissbourd wants to "offer an encouraging road map to all that parents are doing right, and where they may consider correcting course."

Here are Richard Weissbourd's top ten parenting strategies for raising caring kids.


Emphasize What's Important in Life

Instead of telling your children, "The most important thing is that you are happy," Weissbourd suggests telling them, "The most important thing is that you are kind, and that you are responsible for others."

Support Your Child's Developing Maturity

Don't place your sole focus on developing your child's happiness and self-esteem. Instead, Weissbourd says, focus on championing your child's developing maturity. "Maturity, including the ability to manage destructive feelings, to balance and coordinate our needs with others, to empathize, to receive feedback constructively, to be reflective, and to adjust our behavior, is at the heart of both morality and lasting well-being."

Avoid the Trap of Constant Praising

Praise your children for specific accomplishments and occasionally tell them how great they are. But avoid constant praising. When children are praised all the time, they can feel judged all the time. Children may feel patronized by unearned praise. And too much global praise — constantly saying "You're terrific" — can make children feel that their essential value is on the line in everything they do, causing them to inflate their importance, taking either too much credit or too much blame.

Don't Equate Achievement with Success

Too much achievement pressure can diminish children's sense of self, make them less able to care for others, and more likely to experience others primarily as competitors and threats. Make achievement one theme in the large composition of a life. Sort out your own feelings about achievement and status so you don't send mixed messages or appear hypocritical to children, undermining your authority.

Help Your Child Develop Their Moral Center

Help your child register kindness and unkindness, justice and injustice in the world. Listen carefully, without quickly judging, to your child's moral questions and dilemmas. Express your own values, and connect them to your child's experiences and interpretations.

Don't Seek to be Your Child's Friend

You can be very close to your child in many ways, but it's vital that children experience you as an authority, that they idealize you at certain points in their development and see you as someone they want to emulate. Children come to appreciate others as independent and distinct when we appreciate them as distinct.


Head over to Richard Weissbourd's website to read the rest of his Ten Parenting Strategies for raising kids who care. For a more in-depth insight into the book and Weissbourd's theories, listen to his conversation with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air:


Discover More About Richard Weissbourd
Richard Weissbourd is the author of The Parents We Mean To Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children's Moral and Emotional Development, and of The Vulnerable Child: What Really Hurts America's Children and What We Can Do About It, recently named by the American School Board Journal as one of the top ten education books of all time.

By Lisa Merlini

Tag: Exploring Education

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