Many researchers believe that babies are born with a natural instinct for empathy, but as they grow, this trait needs to be reinforced at home and in school in order for it to continue to develop appropriately.

Taking a Closer Look

To better understand how empathy works and what other attributes that seem to go along with it, scientists from the University of Michigan took a closer look at the behaviors and traits of middle-school children who participate in athletics regularly. Interestingly enough, being involved in a school sport and staying active on an ongoing basis are behaviors that seem to be associated with higher self-esteem, leadership skills and also with feelings of empathy for others. The connection between sports participation and empathy seems to boil down to the camaraderie that students share when they participate as part of a larger team.

The Latest Research

These findings, which were released at the 59th annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology in March of 2010, also reveal that those children who show they care about other people also seem to make much more of an effort to also take care of themselves and their own health, too. This is particularly significant, since it means they make important decisions about their own wellbeing and this can also strengthen their future heart health, too. This information may go a long way toward addressing current concerns about the risk of cardiovascular disease facing the younger generation today.

The Logistics

To come to these conclusions, researchers reviewed the data and questionnaires collected on more than 700 sixth graders enrolled in public school. The results indicated some clear differences between leadership and empathy scores and also differences in health behaviors. Some of the other information gathered includes specifics on diet, activity, leadership and also empathy.

Teaching Empathy at Home

Wonder what this means to you and your child? You can use the information to help foster his health and wellbeing. For instance, encouraging him to participate in athletics, and particularly team sports, can be a good step in the right direction. But understand that you don't have to wait until your child is in school to teach empathy. Researchers stress the fact that children have a capacity for some degree of empathy even as infants. Therefore, from the time he's a baby, you can encourage this behavior and as he grows, continue to help it develop.

You can also nurture healthy self-esteem, which is an essential ingredient in caring for others. Part of this can be developed by having an environment supportive of positive family communication. Finally, it's important to model compassion in your interactions with your children and with others to reinforce this behavior.


Psychology Today

University of Michigan