How Media Can Build Empathy in Young Children

By Cyrisse Jaffee

Learning to manage feelings is an essential task of growing up. In order to cope with and understand feelings — good and bad — children need to be able to recognize and talk about them. The good news is that it’s pretty easy to help kids do this: you just need to talk, talk, talk! busty_dancing_screen-shotEncourage your child to express his emotions, thoughts and experiences. As you listen and talk, you’re helping him develop emotional self-awareness while making him feel good about himself.

Empathy is a key social skill that builds on understanding one’s own feelings. Kids who practice empathy are able to recognize what other people are thinking or feeling and are then able to respond with care and compassion. You can help your child build empathy skills by asking him to imagine others’ feelings and thoughts. For example, “When you took away the toy from your friend, how do you think she felt?”

Books and other media can also be powerful tools to help kids develop empathy.

ARTHURArthur waving
For the past 20 years, ARTHUR has offered kids (and families) advice and comfort, along with laughs and adventure. As Senior Executive Producer Carol Greenwald points out, “Whether it’s facing down a bully or worrying about a new teacher, Arthur and his friends manage to solve their dilemmas with imagination, kindness, and humor. The series builds a sense of empowerment for kids.” When kids watch ARTHUR, they not only gain a deeper understanding of problems and how to solve them but also begin to realize how their behavior affects others. This is what building empathy is all about.

So Funny I Forgot to Laugh!
You probably think that an online game is not exactly a great way for kids to recognize, name and cope with their feelings. But wait! Check out the ARTHUR interactive comic “So Funny I Forgot to Laugh!” (based on an ARTHUR episode of the same name). The story has been specifically designed to show what empathy means, what it looks like, and why it’s important. When Arthur makes fun of his friend Sue Ellen, she doesn’t mind at first. But when Arthur doesn’t stop, she (and his other friends) shows him why his words and actions have become hurtful.

“So Funny I Forgot to Laugh!” interactive features makes it an effective teaching tool. It’s also fun (and funny):


  • It’s online. Children will like clicking through the story to find out what happens next.
  • It’s read aloud (and voiced by the familiar ARTHUR characters), so kids don’t have to be expert readers to enjoy it.
  • You can click to hear what the characters are thinking and feeling. This gives children “feelings” vocabulary to use.
  • There are pause points throughout the story when kids are asked questions about the ARTHUR characters, their motivations, and their actions. These pause points are also perfect for starting or extending a conversation together.
  • There are different endings to choose. Depending on what your child selects, the outcome of the story changes. (You can choose new endings as many times as you like.) This also helps you and your child reflect on the story and its meaning.

For more ideas on using “So Funny I Forgot to Laugh!”, including handouts and activities, check out A Guide for Parents on the ARTHUR Family Health site.

We all know books are critical for children’s language development, but they can also help kids understand others’ feelings and the importance of caring for others without even realizing it. Below are just a few examples of books that accomplish this. imagesAs you read these books together, ask lots of questions, and talk about what is happening in the story and how the characters are feeling, just as you did with the interactive comic. Later, you may be able to refer to one of the stories in order to help your child through a difficult situation.

  • “Feelings” by Aliki and “The Way I Feel” by Janan Cain help children identify and name their emotions. This makes it easier for children to find the words to talk about their feelings.
  • Both Shirley Hughes’s “Alfie Lends a Hand” and Juanita Havill’s “Jamaica Tag-Along” have main characters who learn how to express empathy. At a boisterous birthday party, Alfie feels overwhelmed. But when he realizes that little Min is also scared, he gives up his beloved blanket so he can comfort her. Jamaica is upset when her older brother doesn’t want her to play with him and his friends. But after she treats a younger boy the same way, Jamaica recognizes her behavior and changes.
  • In “Crow Boy” by Taro Yashima, “One Hundred Dresses” by Eleanor Estes, and “Each Kindness” by Jacqueline Woodson, children at school learn about how name-calling, teasing and excluding others — especially those who are different — is hurtful.
  • In “What Does It Mean to Be Kind,” Rana DiOrio explores the many ways kids can treat others with care and concern.
    Want more? Check with your local librarian for additional suggestions.
    Whether it’s TV, books or games, media — when used thoughtfully and purposefully — these can be wonderful tools to help you guide, teach and connect with your children.

Cyrisse Jaffee has developed educational materials for many other children’s shows during the past 20 years in the WGBH Educational Department. She holds a Master’s of Library Science from Simmons College and reviews children’s and young adult books for the Horn Book Guide.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: