Teaching Tolerance & Empathy to Children

The commitment to embracing cultural diversity begins in childhood. Read these tips for teaching empathy and compassion to children.


As parents, we have a vision for a world where all people are valued and respected, regardless of their race, gender identity, or socioeconomic level. Recent events have reminded us of how far we still have to go. We may feel challenged about how to best help children understand issues of violence, inequality, racism, prejudice, and discrimination. We may wonder how to foster empathy and compassion in our children.

There are no easy answers, but we can begin by remembering the influence we have within our own homes and communities. The commitment to embracing cultural diversity begins in childhood. Parents and extended family members play a significant role in determining the values the next generation will hold. Read on for a few simple ideas you can incorporate at home:

Teaching Empathy and Compassion for Others

  • Model empathy and compassion. Children are apt observers, taking in both subtle and more direct messages about how to view the world. They are most strongly influenced by the people they care about—teachers, friends, and most of all, family. Be thoughtful about the messages you’re consciously and unconsciously sending. How we treat family members, neighbours, teachers, service providers, and even strangers powerfully communicates our true values to children. Derogatory comments, criticism, gossip, or jokes at someone else’s expense become embedded in a child’s value system. Try to cultivate an atmosphere in your home in which children feel safe to ask questions about issues of cultural diversity. Be aware of what your children might be hearing through television, media, or off-handed comments. Address derogatory comments that you might hear from others.
  • Use high-quality children's books. Books can transport children to other times, environments, and situations, allowing them to relate to and develop empathy for a broad range of characters and circumstances. Choose children’s books that are appropriate for your child’s developmental and cognitive level and show a spectrum of human experiences. Read the books together, teaching empathy and tolerance by highlighting important issues and themes. Pose a few thoughtful questions or observations, such as, “I wonder what we would do in that situation?” or “How do you think the character was feeling?” Avoid moralizing, which can cause children to tune out. Instead, make a gentle comment or two and allow your child time to turn the story over in his or her own mind, taking away the lessons he or she is ready to learn.
  • Offer Solutions. Children sometimes make seemingly racist or bigoted comments that are actually an indicator of the child’s innocence and developmental level. Avoid showing shock over comments such as, “Why is his skin that colour?” or “What’s wrong with her legs?” Instead, offer a brief, matter-of-fact explanation of cultural diversity that emphasizes the beauty and importance of diversity. You could explain, “Just like we have lots of different kinds of flowers in our backyard, people don’t all look the same. That would be pretty boring, wouldn’t it?” Your child may also need guidance in how to respond to other children’s comments. It’s our job as parents to show our children how to calmly and respectfully stand up for themselves and others. A comment like, “Why do you have a black mommy and a white daddy? That’s weird,” may seem intolerant or racist, but may actually be an innocent inquiry. Try to consider the context and intent of the comment. Teach your child to respond thoughtfully, saying, for example, “Families don’t all have to look the same. Isn’t that great?”

While teaching tolerance, empathy, and compassion to your child, tailor your conversations and approach to his or her age, maturity, and cognitive ability. Plan activities, such as a book club or service project, with teachers and friends to actively cultivate the values of empathy, respect, and kindness. Remember that teaching children character is a cumulative process of a thousand small moments achieved through consistent, intentional teaching and example by parents, grandparents, and teachers. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

More Resources for Teaching Empathy, Compassion, and Tolerance to Children

Visit the following web pages for children’s books ideas. While not vetted by Bright Horizons, these lists from Scholastic should offer a good starting point for families:

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