Oregon Parenting Education Collaborative

What I Learned from Teaching my Daughter About Empathy

by Shauna Tominey, PhD

One day when my daughter was about three-and-a-half, we were walking together toward our car talking about her day at preschool.  Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a man making his way toward us from across the street. His clothes were torn and unkempt.  His hair was wild and his beard was littered with debris.

I tightened my hold on my daughter’s hand, quickened my step, and avoided eye contact as I hurried by, giving all of the signs I could that I would not engage.  I breathed a sigh of relief as he passed without so much as a glance.

As we reached the car, my daughter asked:

“Mom, did you see that man?”
“His leg was hurt.”
“How do you know that?”
“He walked funny and had a cane. I hope he is okay.”

The tension I felt making a beeline for the car melted away in that moment.  With her words, my daughter taught me an important lesson about empathy.

In my haste to protect my daughter from a perceived threat, I put my own sense of empathy on hold.  Although I convinced myself that this man might be a threat to our safety (he wasn’t), the real threat was that he made me feel uncomfortable.

In exchange for saving myself that discomfort, I gave up an opportunity to be the parent that I want to be – the kind of parent who models empathy and kindness, even when it is uncomfortable to do so.  Even if all I had to offer was a connection through eye contact or a smile, I could have made another choice – the choice my daughter made to consider the feelings of another human being.

For children and adults alike, empathy matters. Empathy relates to many positive outcomes, ranging from increased pro-social behaviors and cooperation1 to better learning and higher academic outcomes.2

In my past position as the Director of Early Childhood at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and in my new role as an Assistant Professor of Practice/Parenting Education Specialist at Oregon State University, a significant part of my life has been and still is devoted to teaching empathy.  What I learned from my daughter is that I have more to learn.  When it comes to showing empathy and kindness, we can all be better and do better.

So what can we parents/caregivers and educators of young children do to model and teach empathy? Here are a few ideas!

Use your relationship with your child to teach them how to treat others and how they should expect to be treated by others
  • Spend one-on-one time with your child cuddling, snuggling, hugging, sharing stories, or enjoying being together in the way that your family likes best. Children’s early relationships can shape the friends they choose as well as how they treat others.3,4
  • Use words with your child that you wouldn’t mind hearing them say back to you (or to their friends or teachers).  Imagine your child shouting, “Cut it out! I’m sick of this!” at school.  We can all say things when we’re upset that we don’t mean and hearing these words come out of our own children’s mouths can be surprising! It would probably go over better if they said, “I don’t like it when you do that.” This doesn’t mean only using words with your child that you would use with a friend. We would never tell our friends to “be sure and say thank you,” or “don’t forget to wipe your mouth with a napkin.” Guiding and teaching our children is an important part of our role as parents and caregivers, but it is also important for us to take time to intentionally choose the words and tone of voice that we feel best using and that we would feel good about our children using.


Talk about feelings – yours, your child’s, and others’
  • Regardless of our race, ethnicity, culture, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity – we all have feelings.  The idea that we can connect through feelings no matter how similar or different our lives are is at the heart of empathy development. Ask questions that help your child make this connection.  “He looks really upset. Have you ever felt that way before?” “She must feel very proud. What makes you feel proud?”
  • Let your child know that all of their feelings are okay.  There are times when we all feel angry, disappointed, frustrated, happy, and excited.  Sharing stories with your child about times that you have had these feelings as well as asking your child to share what makes them have these feelings is one way to teach them this message.
  • Sometimes it is easier to talk about other people’s feelings than our own. Using characters in stories or movies can be a great way to practice thinking about feelings.5 Ask your child questions like:
    • How do you think he or she is feeling?
    • How do you know they are feeling that way?
    • What happened that led to that feeling?
    • What would you do if you felt that way?  Do you like having that feeling?
    • What could you do for a friend who is feeling that way?


Help your child learn how to connect with others
  • We often tell our children to find a friend to play with at the park, but we don’t always feel comfortable doing the same.  Model for your child how to meet someone new.  Introduce yourself to other parents or families at the park or grocery store.  If this is uncomfortable for you, consider sharing that with your child, “I feel nervous meeting new people, but today I decided to be brave and make a new friend,” or “I really like meeting new people, but not everyone feels that way. How do you feel when you meet someone new?”
  • Support your child when they introduce themselves to others by offering them words to use like: “My name is… What’s your name? Do you want to play together?”
  • Help your child learn to recognize social cues.  “It looks like she really wants to play with you.  I noticed her watching you and smiling when you were in the sandbox.” or “I don’t think he wants that shovel.  He keeps trying to push it away when you give it to him. Why don’t you set it down.”  You can also point out your child’s social cues to others.  “I don’t think he wants a hug right now.  Maybe a high five instead?”  Acknowledging your child’s cues and helping them recognize the cues of others helps children learn to treat others how they want to be treated (rather than how we want to treat them).
  • Most children are naturally curious about other people.  Young children often show this curiosity through staring or pointing, something we actively discourage: “Don’t stare.  It’s not polite to point!”  Instead, encourage your child’s curiosity.  Teach them how to talk about similarities and to ask about differences in a way that is respectful and shows genuine curiosity.  “I have that same shirt!” “I never saw one of those before. Can you tell me about it?”  Not everyone will be interested in talking with your child, especially if they are pointing out something that stands out (e.g., a woman wearing a hijab, a man in a wheelchair, a child with braces), but you may find yourself surprised at how many will appreciate the chance to have a conversation!


Help your child make amends – not just say “I’m sorry”
  • When your child hurts another child (or an adult), whether it is a physical hurt or hurt feelings, help your child think about the other person’s feelings (“How do you think that made them feel?).  Encourage your child to say, “I’m sorry,” but also to ask, “Are you okay?” and “What can I do to help you feel better?” Ask your child what they could do differently next time.
  • Sometimes as parents, we do things that we don’t feel good about. We can use these moments to model how to make amends. If you feel comfortable doing so, use these same steps above to make amends with your child: “I was feeling really frustrated earlier when you wouldn’t take a bath. I’m sorry that I yelled at you – I shouldn’t have done that. Next time I’ll take a deep breath and try to stay calm, but I also need your help. What do you think we can do to make bath time be better?”  Wouldn’t it be amazing to hear your teenage child say to you:  “I’m sorry I yelled.  I was feeling frustrated when you told me I couldn’t stay out late.  I should have kept my calm so we could talk about it.”?  To get there, we have to lay a foundation early on to show them how!


Model empathy throughout the day
  • Look for ways you and your child can help others and your community.  Be sure to explain to your child what you are doing and why. For example, when picking up trash around your neighborhood, let your child know that, “this is something we can do to make our neighborhood a nicer place! I bet our neighbors will be so surprised when they see how nice our street looks!” Or when holding the door open for a stranger tell your child, “I noticed he looked tired so I wanted to help out!”
  • Show your child how to think about situations from another person’s point of view.  “I felt really frustrated when that woman cut in front of us at the store. I bet she was in a hurry.  Maybe she was late for an appointment.”  This can be especially hard to do when feeling frustrated, but all the more important to model to help our child learn to do the same.

At this time in our world when societal tensions are high, laying a foundation for empathy feels especially pressing.

A few weeks ago, my daughter overheard a man asking people walking by to buy him a sandwich because he was hungry. She stopped and opened her lunch bag. I had seen this man before with his bloodshot eyes. On other days, I had chosen to walk around him.

Standing with my daughter that day, I made a different choice. The choice to be the model that I want to be. My daughter held out her applesauce and spoon and I said, “my daughter heard you say you were hungry and wanted to share her lunch with you.”

Much to my surprise, the man got down on his knees, looked my daughter in the eyes and gently said, “Thank you. You did the right thing today by sharing. Your mama taught you right. I’m not going to take your lunch because you’re a growing girl and you really need it. I’m already grown. I’m big and I need a big sandwich, but don’t you worry about me. Someone is going to share a sandwich with me soon. Just know that you did the right thing.”

He stood up, gave me a big grin, and gave my daughter a big thumbs up.  I apologized for not having money with me to buy him a sandwich.  He smiled back, “Don’t worry about that. Just keep teaching your daughter what you’re teaching her.”

I will never forget the lesson in empathy and kindness I learned that day both from my daughter and from our new friend, “Mr. C.”  Sometimes as parents, we step out of our own comfort zones for our children. This was one of those times for me and I am grateful that I did.

Mr. C. now smiles and waves whenever we pass his corner. He never asks for money, but always gives my daughter a big thumbs up. I smile and wave back and stop and buy him a sandwich when I can.

I find myself wondering daily: what can I do today to teach my daughter about empathy? Although this is an important question, maybe I should also be asking myself: what will I learn from my daughter about empathy today?

Additional Resources

How to Help Your Child Develop Empathy


How Parents Can Cultivate Empathy in Children



  1. Taylor, Z. E., Eisenberg, N., Spinrad, T. L., Eggum, N. D., & Sulik, M. J. (2013). The relations of ego-resiliency and emotion socialization to the development of empathy and prosocial behavior across early childhood.Emotion, 13(5), 822.
  1. Bonner, T. D., & Aspy, D. N. (1984). A study of the relationship between student empathy and GPA. The Journal of Humanistic Education and Development, 22(4), 149-154.
  1. Murphy, T. P., & Laible, D. J. (2013). The influence of attachment security on preschool children’s empathic concern. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 0165025413487502.
  1. Panfile, T. M., & Laible, D. J. (2012). Attachment security and child’s empathy: The mediating role of emotion regulation. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly,58(1), 1-21.
  1. Brownell, C. A., Svetlova, M., Anderson, R., Nichols, S. R., & Drummond, J. (2013). Socialization of early prosocial behavior: Parents’ talk about emotions is associated with sharing and helping in toddlers. Infancy, 18(1), 91-119.

Ayudando a los Padres a Entender el Desarrollo del Idioma Ingles en Niños que Están Aprendiendo Ingles

Escrito por: Guadalupe Díaz, Cesiah Vega & Dr. Karen Thompson

(English Version of Post)

Los padres cuyos hijos son Estudiantes del Idioma Ingles (ELL por sus siglas en Ingles) a menudo tienen muchas preocupaciones sobre el desarrollo del lenguaje Inglés de sus hijos. Muchos mitos rodean el desarrollo del lenguaje Inglés que puede crear confusión, por lo que es difícil para los padres saber cuales son las mejores estrategias para apoyar a sus hijos. Hemos recopilado las cinco preocupaciones principales que hemos escuchado en varias ocasiones de los padres sobre el desarrollo del lenguaje Inglés de sus hijos. Vamos a hablar abajo sobre cada una de estas preocupación basado en las investigaciones más recientes.

Preocupación # 1: Si le hablo mi lenguaje nativo/materna a mi hijo/a el/ella no va aprender Ingles

Muchos padres se preocupan que si le hablan su lenguaje nativo a sus hijos  hablar en su ellos se retrasará en lenguaje y el crecimiento académico. investigaciones actuales muestra que hablar un idioma nativo puede construir la base del lenguaje que los niños necesitan para aprender un segundo idioma. Una vez que los niños han desarrollado una sólida base lingüística en su primera idioma  van a estar mejor preparados para aprender Inglés.

Preocupación # 2: Aprender dos idiomas va a confundir mi hijo

Es un mito muy común que el aprendizaje de dos idiomas puede confundir  o agobiar a un niño, pero basado en investigaciones actuales es todo lo contrario. La mayoría de los niños de todo el mundo aprenden más de un idioma. Los niños tienen la capacidad de distinguir entre los dos idiomas a través de diferentes señales para decidir qué idioma es el mas adecuado para utilizar en cada ocasión. Aprender dos idiomas no causará retrasos en la habilidad del niños de aprender Ingles. Además, las investigaciones ha demostrado que el aprendizaje de dos idiomas tiene beneficios cognitivos, socio-cultural, y económicos.

Preocupación # 3: El lenguaje de mi hijo no se está desarrollando tan rápido como los niños que sólo hablan inglés

A menudo los padres comparar el desarrollo del lenguaje de sus hijos a otros niños para evaluar si se están desarrollando adecuadamente. Es importante recordar que todos los niños se desarrollan a ritmos diferentes y hay diferentes etapas de la adquisición de una segunda lengua. Las diferentes etapas pueden ayudar a entender donde los niños están en el desarrollo del lenguaje Inglés y la forma de ayudarles a mejorar sus habilidades.

Preocupación # 4: Mi hijo se quedará atrás si no han aprendido Inglés a finales de la escuela preescolar o el Kinder

A menudo, cuando los niños no hablan Inglés a cuando terminan la escuela prescolar o el Kinder los padres se preocupan que sus hijos se están quedando atrás. La realidad es que los niños necesita un promedio de 4-7 años para tener fluidez en Inglés. Aprender dos idiomas es un trabajo duro y tenemos que dar a los niños el tiempo suficiente y el apoyo adecuado para dominar los dos idiomas.

Preocupación # 5: Si mi hijo asiste a un programa de Doble Inmersión se van a atrasar en Inglés y académicamente

Cuando los padres están tomando la decisión de inscribir a sus hijos en programas de Doble inmersión les preocupa que sus hijos se quedarán atrás académicamente y aprenderán Inglés a un ritmo más lento. Las investigaciones ha documentado los beneficios a largo plazo de inscribir a los niños en programas de Doble Inmersión.

Por ejemplo, las investigaciones científicas muestra que, a largo plazo, los niños que están aprendiendo inglés (ELLs por sus siglas en Ingles) tienen más probabilidades de ser competentes en Inglés y dominar el contenido académico cuando están inscritos en programas de Doble Inmersión en vez de programas de Inglés solamente. Además, los programas de Doble Inmersión son más eficaces en cerrar la brecha de rendimiento  académico entre los estudiantes que están aprendiendo Ingles (ELLs por sus siglas en Ingles) y estudiantes que ya hablan Ingles.


Para mas información sobre como apoyar a los niños que están aprendiendo ingles (ELLs) valla a:

http://www.colorincolorado.org/es/home (Recursos en Español/Resources in Spanish)

Helping Parents Understand English Language Development in English Language Learners

by: Guadalupe Díaz, Cesiah Vega & Dr. Karen Thompson

(En Espanol)

Parents whose children are English Language Learners often have many concerns about their children’s English language development.  Many myths surround English language development that can create confusion, making it difficult for parents to know the best strategies to support their children.  We have compiled the top five concerns that we have repeatedly heard from parents about their children’s English language development. We will address each concern based on latest research.

Concern #1: If I speak my native language to my child he/she will not learn English 

Many parents worried that speaking their native language to their children will delay language and academic growth.  Current research shows that speaking a native language can build the language foundation that children need to learn a second language. Once children have developed a strong language foundation in their first language they will be better equipped to learn English.

Concern #2: Learning two languages will confuse my child

 It is a common myth that learning two languages can confuse and/or overwhelm a child, but based on current research the opposite is true.  Most children around the world learn more than one language. Children have the capacity to distinguish between the two languages through different cues to decide which language is appropriate to use in each context. Learning two languages will not cause delays in children’s English language acquisition.  Additionally, research has shown that learning two languages has cognitive, sociocultural, and economic benefits.

Concern #3: My child’s language is not developing as fast as children who only speak English

Often parents compare their children’s language development to other children to assess whether they are developing appropriately.  It is important to remember that all children develop at different rates and there are different stages of acquiring a second language. The different stages can help us understand where children are in their English language development and how to help them further their skills.

Concern #4: My child will fall behind if they have not learned English by the end of preschool or kindergarten

Often when children are not speaking English by the end of preschool or kindergarten parents become concern that children are falling behind.  The reality is that it takes children on average 4-7 years to become fluent in English.  Learning two languages is hard work and we need to give children enough time and the appropriate support to master both languages.

Concern #5: If my child attends a dual immersion program they will and fall behind in English and academically

When parents are making the decision whether to enroll their children in dual immersion programs they worry that their children will fall behind academically and they will learn English at a slower pace.  Research has documented the long-term benefits of enrolling children in dual immersion programs.  For example, research shows that in the long-term, children who are English Language Learners are more likely to become proficient in English and master academic content when they are enrolled in dual language immersion programs rather than English-only programs. Additionally, dual immersion programs are more effective at closing the achievement gap between English language learners and non-English language learners.

To find more information on supporting English Language Learners go to: http://www.colorincolorado.org
http://www.colorincolorado.org/es/home (Recursos en Español/Resources in Spanish)

Promoting Positive Health & Development in Children

By Megan McClelland, Ph.D.
(Oregon Parenting Education Week Newsletter – 2015)

Although many young children have healthy and positive childhoods, disturbing numbers of children continue to experience abuse. There are a number of ways that this can be prevented including supporting positive and effective parenting strategies. Here are a few tips that parents can use to promote positive health and development in their children.

1. Work on your own self-control Parents who keep themselves calm are more able to respond patiently to their children, even when children are having a temper tantrum. Parents who have an understanding of typical child development are more likely to link children’s behavior to their stage of development. This helps put a child’s behavior in perspective. Children also model their parent’s behavior. For example, if you start yelling in your car in a fit of road rage, your child will learn to solve problems by yelling too. Promoting strong self-control in children is important because it predicts how they do in school, how they get along with others, and many long-term outcomes such as stronger health and better educational attainment (e.g., graduating from college).

2.Develop a warm and responsive parenting style but keep your expectations high too! Parents who are warm and responsive with their children have stronger relationships with them. But don’t give up your expectations! Children with warm but firm parents are more likely to comply with adult demands and act in more moral ways. They are also more likely to do better in school, have stronger self-esteem, and a better sense of who they are.

3.Talk, talk, talk with your child! Key to developing a positive relationship with your child is to talk with them as soon as they are born and keep talking to them! Use trips to the store, bath time, and meal time as important time with your child. Do not spend this time on cell phones or other mobile devices – it can lead you to be impatient and inattentive with your child. Even if your child is too young to talk, talk to them about what you have to do that day or what you are buying at the store. As they get older, listen to them and ask open-ended questions. Early vocabulary and language skills are important precursors to school readiness and will also promote a strong bond with children.

4.Get help when you need it! Parenting is Hard! We all need breaks, even if we have resources, a supportive partner, and a job that we love. Remember to give yourself a break! Exercising (even if it’s just going for a walk), having time and space to calm down, and getting enough sleep all helps promote positive parenting. For example, research has shown that using mindfulness practices and meditation can lower cortisol (a stress hormone) and promote better parenting. Learning positive parenting strategies is an important way to improve your parenting and your child’s development. Go to parenting classes and access resources! A few good resources include: http://www.joinvroom.org, www.pbs.org/wholechild/parents/building.html, and http://www.zerotothree.org/child-development/.

Parenting Education: It’s Good for All Parents

By Jenn Finders & John Geldhof, Ph.D.
(Oregon Parenting Education Week Newsletter – 2015)

Parenting education classes are an important resource for families. Sadly, common myths keep many families from taking part. Many parents see these classes as a way to correct other people’s bad behaviors. They do not understand that all parents have something to gain from classes based on the latest research.

The Myth
We tend to see interventions as something that “fix” people. If parents see parenting education only as an intervention, they assume the classes are only meant for bad parents. Parents who go to the classes must be doing something wrong; otherwise they wouldn’t need to go.

The Facts
Parenting education is not an intervention. Parenting classes can teach all parents important new skills. In fact, research done at Oregon State University shows that low-income, higher-income, court-mandated, and voluntary parents all benefit from parenting education equally.

The Solution
Education is just as important for raising a child as it is for having one. For example, many parents learn about giving birth from friends and family, but they also take childbirth classes to better prepare for the event. By working to remove the stigma from parenting education, we can teach parents that these classes can likewise supplement the advice they get from their friends and families, teaching them:

  • Children’s age-appropriate behaviors
  • Positive ways to discipline
  • Better ways to communicate
  • A clearer understanding of their own parenting goals and values

To find out more about parenting classes in your area, contact your local parenting education hub: http://health.oregonstate.edu/hallie-ford/oregon-parenting-education/opec-hubs

Physical activity for your child with a disability

physical activityBy Megan MacDonald, PhD & Erica Twardzik
(Oregon Parenting Education Week Newsletter – 2015)

You are your child’s advocate for physical activity and exercise. One way you can support your preschool child with a disability to be active is by making sure that physical activity is included in your Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). An IFSP is a plan that you help to create so your child has access to the services that they need. Physical activity/physical education is included in this plan. The steps below are ways you can get the ball rolling for inclusion of physical activity services to an IFSP in Oregon.

Step 1: Make a referral
To create an IFSP for your child you will first need to make a referral. Referring your child will include sharing concerns that you have about your child’s development. In the state of Oregon services for young children with a disability are provided by the education department: http://www.ode.state.or.us/search/page/?id=1690

Step 2: Evaluation
An evaluation will help you learn your child’s specific strengths and needs in order to be physically active. This can help you and your doctor find physical activities that will be fun and the right fit for your child.

Step 3: What is available around you?
Physical activity in your area can be found through local community organizations. Well established programs in the state of Oregon include, but are not limited to: Special Olympics, Boys & Girls Clubs, Parks & Recreation, Family YMCA’s, and other local community based programs. You can also contact United Way to ask about help for your child in these programs.

Step 4: Remember you are your child’s strongest believer!
The goal is to find physical activities that your child will enjoy. But, if your child is having difficulty with the activity you can ask for the right supports be added to your child’s IFSP. This will make sure that your child has the best chance at success. You as parents have the power to make a positive impact on your child’s physical activity and exercise experiences.

Establishing Children’s Sleep Routines

By Denise Rennekamp, M.S.
(Oregon Parenting Education Week Newsletter – 2015)

Adequate sleep is important to your child’s overall health, growth, and development. Children who do not get enough sleep are less mentally alert and easily distracted. Lack of sleep can also cause a child to be more physically impulsive. Establishing a calming naptime/bedtime routine can help your child get to sleep faster and awake rested. Although each child and family situation is unique, the following ideas may be helpful.

  • OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGive children some transition time. Say, “it’s naptime in 10 minutes” or “after I read you a story, it will be time to go to sleep.” It may help to use a timer so children will know when time is up.
  • Set rules about number of stories, drinks of water, getting out of bed, etc.
  • Plan a wind-down activity. Read a story, turn down the lights, play quiet music, or just talk. TV, movies, screen time, roughhousing, or active games are not good choices prior to naptime or bedtime.
  • Provide children with security. Let her have her favorite stuffed animals, blankie, night light, flashlight by the bed, or the door open.
  • Talk about fears and anxieties. Do a “monster check” if that seems to be a concern.
  • Avoid activities that compete with resting or going to sleep. Have adults and older children observe similar quiet time. This will encourage the little ones to go to sleep.
  • Decide on a regular bedtime. Set bedtime 10 to 12 hours before the child needs to get up. If a child is getting up too early, he may be going to bed too soon. On the other hand, if a child is grumpy or drowsy, he may not be getting to bed early enough.

“Consistency is key to success. If you are co-parenting, discuss bedtime routines and work as a team. A well-rested child equals a more rested parent.”

For more parenting tips contact your local OPEC Parenting Hub!