This content is sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts

Sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts

This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's Studio/B in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.

How to raise a kind kid

Today more than ever, the greatest gift a parent can give a child is the ability to empathize.


The Elwys aren’t a family that goes skiing together. Or that spends Sundays at the beach. “There have been very few things that, as a family, we can all do together,” says Rani Elwy, mother of Lucy, 20; Ben, 17; and Charlotte, 12.

Born with a neuromuscular disorder, Ben uses a walker or wheelchair to get around and a tracheostomy tube to help him breathe.

So when Ben began demonstrating an interest in volunteering—first by contacting the local Wellesley library to ask if he could use his computer skills to help out—Rani and her husband, Sherin, saw an opportunity to spend more time together as a family.

The Elwys volunteering at Room to Grow

In 2016, the family of five attended an orientation event at Boston Cares, a clearinghouse for nonprofits, and learned about local organizations that welcome volunteers. Now, two years later, they volunteer as a family around 10 hours a month—and even more in the summer when their schedules are more flexible.

They spent a recent Saturday sorting donated goods at Room to Grow, a nonprofit in downtown Boston that offers coaching, clothing, books, and more to support children’s early development. “It’s not what most people would think of as a family activity,” Rani says, “but it’s truly what works for us.”

Empathizing with others, the Elwys found, brought them closer together as a family.

That time spent volunteering, Rani Elwy believes, is having a big effect on her kids individually, too. She thinks Charlotte, her youngest, sees and is affected by how Ben feels when he is included and treated as a part of the team—especially since that may not always be the case. “I’ve really tried to encourage Charlotte to take the initiative when she sees people who may not be included and just to have an awareness of that—what it’s like to be someone who, perhaps, is not included in a lot of activities,” says Rani, who works as a research psychologist.

One place Ben doesn’t have to worry about feeling included and appreciated? Wherever he’s giving his all to help others.

“When he’s standing for four hours at the food bank, that’s hard work for him,” says Rani. “Everywhere we go, people are just so thrilled that we’re there, and then they look at Ben and they’re even more thrilled that we’re there.”


Empathy gap

Michele Borba, educational psychologist and author of “UnSelfie”

How can parents raise an empathetic child? In a materialistic, competitive society, it’s not always easy.

“We’ve been raising test scores, instead of human beings,” says Michele Borba, an educational psychologist and author of “UnSelfie.” “Everything we do for our kids, starting at age 2, is taking them to coding lessons, to violin lessons, to SAT Prep.” What’s missing is the unstructured playtime kids need to practice getting along with others.

“All the emphasis has been placed on ‘what did you get’ as soon as the kids walk home, as opposed to ‘what kind things did you do,’” Borba says. That sends a message that success is more important than compassion.

And children are listening.

Milena Batanova, research and evaluation manager at Making Caring Common

Kids today prioritize their personal happiness and success over caring for others, says Milena Batanova, research and evaluation manager at Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education dedicated to making caring a priority in homes, schools, and communities. In a national survey of more than 10,000 middle and high school students, “the kids made it very clear to MCC that their self-interest was paramount,” Batanova says.

Researchers have seen a downward trend in empathy among young people for years. A 2010 University of Michigan study found millennial students were less likely to agree with statements such as “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective” and “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me” when compared with students surveyed in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

As our society values individual success and happiness over caring for others, we may ironically be setting kids up for failure at both, Borba says. A gift for collaboration is key to success in the workplace as offices become increasingly global and diverse. “Businesses are saying in the end what they want is a ‘we kid’ who can collaborate, who can get along with others,” Borba explains. In fact, according to the World Economic Forum, emotional intelligence will be among the top 10 most valuable workplace skills in 2020. And happiness? “The seeds of real happiness,” says Borba, “are steeped in people, relationships, and getting along—and the foundation of all that is empathy.”

Questions from the empathy assessment used in the University of Michigan study

Starting small

Children playing together, sharing their toys

There are some simple steps parents can take to let kids know that empathy is a core family value. For example, remind your kids to do or say at least two kind things each day. When they come home from school or at dinner, talk about those two kind acts. “Every parent who does that says that in the beginning it’s hard,” says Borba, but pretty soon, “the kids actually start brainstorming ‘what are some kind things we could do?’” At first, “it’s a smile,” Borba says, “but later on it’s ‘open the door for somebody’ or ‘if you see somebody who’s sad, go up and hug them.’” Borba also recommends purposefully breaking out collaborative board games or watching movies and reading books with characters that the child may practice empathizing with. 

Grownups should be held accountable, too. “One of the most important things is to model empathy,” advises Patricia Abbott, a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. Take an introspective approach. Look at how you talk to people and how you feel about people. “Actions speak much louder than words in most things with regard to children,” says Abbott. “They’ll do what you do, not what you say.”

Laura Markham, author of “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids”

One of the best ways to model empathy? By empathizing with your own kids. “The research shows us that empathy is learned by experiencing it,” says Laura Markham, author of “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids.” Empathizing doesn’t mean changing your limits, Markham notes, so parents can still enforce a no-snacks-before-dinner rule while validating that their child must be hungry, for example. When they empathize, children and parents can literally feel the love: Oxytocin, a hormone that strengthens the bonds between people, is released in both parties during an empathetic interaction, Markham says.

It’s important to teach children not just the ability to understand another person’s perspective, but also how to take empathetic action. “We’ve been bubble-wrapping our kids and rescuing them too often,” Borba says. “What we need is a resilient child who can step in and do the right thing without us.” When they see someone being treated unfairly or who could use a bit of help, they need to know what steps they can take to safely intervene. If they feel powerless, “their stress level goes up and they feel guilt or shame, so they dial down their empathy.”

One way to teach actionable empathy is through volunteering. But not all volunteer opportunities are equally impactful. “It’s important that they have the opportunity to sustain the experience and to really build a connection with whomever they’re volunteering with,” Batanova says.

Parents should follow their child’s lead when it comes to volunteering. How can their child apply their real interests and passions to helping others? For example, “if I knew that my child loved to draw,” Borba suggests, “I’d say ‘okay, then you make some beautiful pictures, I’d love to take them to the nursing home together.’” A common mistake is pushing an uninterested kid to volunteer because it might look good on an Ivy League application. “In reality, Ivy Leagues are telling us now: find your child’s passion and push that with giving,” Borba says.

The Elwys volunteering at Cradles to Crayons

Cradles to Crayons, a nonprofit that collects and distributes new and nearly new items to children in need, purposefully tries to cultivate empathy among its volunteers, especially child volunteers. “Just like a muscle, empathy needs to be flexed,” says Lynn Margherio, founder and CEO of the organization. “If we aren’t actively practicing empathy, it’s the kind of thing that can be pushed to the back of our minds.”

At a station where volunteers put together a week’s worth of matched outfits for a child, Cradles employees ask them to imagine themselves in that child’s shoes. “What would you put together,” Margherio says employees ask, “to ensure that child feels great about how they look in the classroom?” At their Boston location, for example, volunteers wouldn’t send along a jersey with a rival sport team’s logo because they want the child to feel like they fit in. “You get a lot of heads that nod when you make it something that is real to them and an experience that they have each day,” says Margherio.


There are plenty of opportunities to teach empathy in daily life too. When you see a baby crying in public, Markham suggests, take the opportunity to ask your child why they think the baby is upset. Or if there’s a new little one in your own home, “talk to the child about what the baby is thinking and feeling.” Through this practice, “they develop empathy and it’s measurable,” Markham says.

Making new connections

Sometimes, kids themselves are best at teaching empathy to other young people.

When she was an infant, Naissa Isaro and her family moved to Maine from Rwanda as asylum seekers. Growing up in South Portland, Isaro witnessed tension between those born in the state and the growing immigrant population.

“Even if you find 100 things that you love about somebody and one thing that you hate about them,” she observed, “somehow the hate overpowers everything.”

At 15, she decided to attend a nearby summer camp run by Seeds of Peace, which focuses on building connections across differences and preparing teens from communities in conflict to be effective leaders for peace.

Bobbie GottschalkCampers at Seeds of Peace hugging

Seeds of Peace is a traditional camp in many ways. Campers do arts and crafts, play sports, live in cabins with bunk beds, and eat at a dining hall. But in addition, campers have a facilitated dialogue session for nearly two hours each day. For many, it’s their first opportunity to hear what someone’s life is like on the other side of a conflict or as a function of their gender, race, or religion. The program continues year-round through activities at home, all designed to build relationships across lines of conflict or difference, gain insights into issues that divide them, and develop greater levels of trust and empathy. “Having that opportunity not only allows people to understand and connect differently with each other,” says Eva Armour, the director of impact at Seeds of Peace, “but it inspires a commitment to want to work toward change.”

Isaro and her sister, who attended Seeds of Peace a year later, were so influenced by the experience that they helped incorporate a similar structured dialogue into their high school’s curriculum. Their program, called CivilTEA, trains students to facilitate monthly peer-to-peer discussion groups around topics like immigration, beauty norms, and race. Several other high schools have also adopted the program with their help.

“People go in uncertain and unaware and probably even uneasy,” Isaro says of the program. After a few sessions, though, students are able to listen to and understand each other’s views, even if their experiences and perspectives are vastly different.

“They gained the tools of empathy, and that made a safer and more productive community both with Seeds of Peace and CivilTEA,” Isaro says.

Now a college freshman in Massachusetts, Isaro hopes to continue spreading CivilTEA to high schools in the area and, eventually, to turn the project into a career.

“Especially in a time like this, I think it’s really important that more people do this work and see the beauty in having civil conversations,” Isaro says. “Then we can start from there and grow and make things better.”

Naissa Isaro participating in “Bridges to Peace,” an annual event for Seeds of Peace supporters in Augusta, Maine


In a three-part collaboration with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, BG BrandLab is exploring how empathy can help nurture healthy communities, workplaces, and children.

This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's Studio/B in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.