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6 Tips to Teaching Children Healthy Empathy

Zawjah Ali demonstrates how to curb selfish thinking and actions in children.

My daughter seemed to be very cheerful when I overheard her talking to her best friend. They  were both happy because the top girl in their class had flunked the exams due to  her mother’s departure from this world.



For a moment, my inner self was so furious to find my girl laughing at someone else’s sufferings and I immediately thought of scolding her. Then I paused and reflected. If I am not able to show compassion myself, how can I expect her to? Home is a starting point and a mother’s lap is a child’s first educational spot.



Communication is a key to all locks. It has to be effective so it may not lose its meaning. One has to be empathetic in order to exercise compassion. For that, one must know the difference between empathy, compassion and sympathy.



Compassion is empathy in action

Empathy is when you see and listen to another’s pain and distress as if through their eyes and ears. You feel their agony as if you were them. The outcome of empathy is compassion. Compassion is apparent in the way we consolidate, hold a hand, and offer a warm hug. Compassion is also taught by Prophet Muhammad (SAW).



Suppose someone told you that she has lost her mother. Your reply to her is  “Aww too bad, but at least you had one; there are millions of orphaned children out there. ” This statement shows that you are sorry and sympathetic, but not empathetic.



In my observation, we usually give sympathy and expect empathy. This might be unconscious, but this is how our brain responds automatically. With effort we can change this unhealthy pattern.



Our beloved Prophet (SAW) is the walking example of compassion and kindness. He cried for his ummah and prayed for all ease of his ummah while suffering from death pain. He embodies care and affection for all.




Nu’man bin Bashir (RA) reported:

The Messenger of Allah (SAW) said, “The believers in their mutual kindness, compassion and sympathy are just like one body. When one of the limbs suffers, the whole body responds to it with wakefulness and fever.”



The Prophet (SAW) even had care and empathy for animals. Once, upon entering a garden, the Prophet saw a camel that was just skin and bones. Upon seeing it, the Prophet began crying, and then he put his hand on its head until it was comforted. He said to the owner of that camel: “Don’t you fear Allah about this beast that Allah has given in your possession? It has complained to me that you keep it hungry and load it heavily which fatigues It.” His compassion for mothers can be seen from his shortening of prayers when he used to hear a  baby cry. He knew very well what it does to a mother’s heart when her baby cries. He  was so considerate and compassionate.



It is the beauty of Islam that it unites the hearts and souls of every Muslim: It’s not blood that unites two hearts, it’s brotherhood.



Islam is a religion which emphasises on community rather than individualism. It focuses on mutual well-being. There are numerous ayah from the book of Allah (SWT) and examples from the life of the Prophet demonstrating to exercise compassion.



“And what will explain to thee, the path that is steep? (It is:) freeing the bondman;  Or the giving of food in a day of privation To the orphan with claims of relationship,  Or to the indigent (down) in the dust. Then will he be of those who believe, and enjoin patience, (constancy, and self-restraint), and enjoin deeds of kindness and compassion. Such are the Companions of the Right Hand.  But those who reject Our Signs, they are the (unhappy) companions of the Left Hand. On them will be Fire Vaulted over (all round). (Al-Balad: 12- 20)



We can thus navigate life by the decorum that we have been given. Each and every little thing has been taught to us by Allah and his Prophet and all is made crystal clear. We can instill these ayahs in our upbringing by implementing them in our lives first and foremost. Talk the talk will not work, we need to walk the walk, just as the Prophet (SAW) did.



How to turn empathy into action:

  1. Let’s make a family effort that we as Muslims will be empathetic and helpful by giving in charity. Make a ‘sadaqa box’ to which every member of the family will make regular contributions. At the end of the month, it can be given to anyone needy or hungry.


  1. Treat the people working for and with you with respect and care. Your kids will pick up the tone and words you use to address others. Be down to earth as the high position we often enjoy is not something we have achieved; it is what Allah (SWT) has given. All is His.


  1.   Tell your family tales of how to be compassionate. I often narrate a story about a cat which is teased and hit by some kids in park. Then I use a name of my child to be the hero who comes to rescue the poor cat and take care of it.


  1. Make them good listeners not advisers. When someone is sharing their grief, do not rush to a conclusion or open your box of remedies. Show that you feel their pain by reflecting their hurt. Often this is all that is needed.


  1. Be loving and kind to elderly people. Send audio and video texts to grandparents. I once read about a mother who kept a box filled with the names of elderly relatives. Every Sunday, one of her children picks a name and they would make something for the relative and spend a day with them.


  1. Create a compassion tree as a visual reminder for your children. Grab some colorful papers and talk with your kids about how it feels to be kind and helpful. What actions are considered to be thoughtful and compassionate?  Write their examples on squares of the paper, roll them and attach each to a branch of a potted or paper tree.



Implementation of these guidelines in our homes and at schools can shape better individuals to form a healthy, caring society. A study reveals that caring teachers succeed in managing their classrooms effectively, including maintaining discipline, solving problems, and setting expectations, limits, and rewards. (Gootman, 1997) ‘Caring’ classrooms are homes to warm, supportive, stable relationships and to the social and ethical dimensions of learning. (Lewis, Schapps, & Watson, 1996)



Empathy is a win-win situation. It will enhance us personally, spiritually, socially and also excel us in our deeds while even making us feel good about ourselves.


Zawjah Ali writes  for Hiba blog and magazine, the Muslimah network and other Muslim media. She has done A levels and was halfway through graduation in psychology when she got married and is now a homemaker and mother of two, alhumdulilah.