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How to Develop Empathy in Children through Human-Animal Relationship

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Empathy skills are important life skills related to success in many areas of development - personal, social and academic. Parents can help a child learn empathy skills by taking advantage of the child's natural liking for animals.

Empathy is now a buzzword on the lips of business leaders who believe that the key to business success is its people, communication and effective social networking. Not only business leaders but scientists, life coaches, psychologists, political activists and academics are also talking about empathy. Empathy is a human trait we are so used to that sometimes we don’t really take the time to check our own ‘empathy banks’ and cultivate more empathy skills that are essential for a good quality of life.

A few years ago, I learned about cultivating empathy skills to assist me as a Peer Educator for HIV/Aids. In my country, the social stigma, shame and rejection of people with HIV/Aids is so harsh and high that only good empathy skills can help reduce. In this hub, we will look at the importance of empathy and how parents can assist in developing empathy in children as part of the emotional development in children.


What Is Empathy?

Simply, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Empathy is both a cognitive and emotional skill. Well known American psychologist on emotional intelligence Daniel Goleman established that empathy is an important element of emotional intelligence. People with empathy can easily understand the feelings and perspectives of those around them without being judgmental. Thus, empathetic people are usually excellent at managing relationships, listening, and relating to others in a more understanding manner.

For example, if you watch a sad movie and you cry, that is empathy because you are putting yourself in the shoes of the character in the movie. If you see the poor, the homeless and the disease-stricken and you feel for them and do something in response to that emotion, that is a demonstration of empathy. It is normal for human beings to feel that way.

Why is Empathy Important?

Everyday, we deal with people, people, people, unless one is in complete seclusion and shut out from the world around him. These people may be our spouse, children, other family members, work colleagues, fellow students, or anyone that we come into contact with on a day to day basis. Empathy skills can help us have a good quality of life and also improve the lives of those people around us.

We may have some point in time taken an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test which tested our cognitive intelligence. If we get a high result in an IQ test, that does not mean we are intelligent in all areas of what make you a human being. There are other types of intelligence – emotional intelligence, social intelligence, spiritual intelligence and moral intelligence – that determines our success in life. Empathy is not only a feeling but the actions we take.

Emotional Intelligence

According to Daniel Goleman, empathy is the second most important element of emotional intelligence. So what is emotional intelligence? Simply, emotional intelligence is the ability to understand our own emotions and how they affect those around us. It also involves our perception of others and how they think and feel. People with high emotional intelligence (EI) are good at managing their emotions, are good listeners, considerate, caring, and they manage relationships more effectively. People with high EI know themselves better, know their emotions and are able to sense the emotional needs of others. Thus, they are able to manage negative emotions well and help others do the same.

Lydia with stray puppies October 2012

Lydia with stray puppies October 2012

A boy and his best friend, his dog, praying.

A boy and his best friend, his dog, praying.

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Instilling Empathy in Children

Latest research shows that successful learners are knowledgeable, self-determined, strategic and empathetic (John B.F, 1990). They are successful in school, at home and in the community in which they live. Developing empathy in children from an early age will pave the way for their success at school (academic) and in their social and personal lives. I don’t think it is the school’s job to develop generosity, compassion, and helpfulness in their students. Parents have the primary responsibility to instill empathy skills in their children and assist children cultivate emotional, social, spiritual, and moral intelligence in addition to cognitive intelligence. One way parents can do this is to create an environment for the child to have child-animal relationship to develop empathy skills.

How to Teach Children Empathy through Human-Animal Relationship

Human beings have a lot to learn from animals through meaningful relationships with particular animals that can actually help human beings develop moral faculties requisite for ethical behaviour. Starting from childhood, parents can help a child develop empathy by paying attention to how the child interacts with the animal and discourage bad or cruel behaviour and promote and encourage positive behaviour.

Children are naturally fascinated with animals and they have a natural liking for certain animals, especially common household pets such as dogs and cats. Beginning at infancy, children are surrounded with animal presences. They have animal theme clothing, bedroom, toys and stuffed animals. They cuddle, name, talk to, play with and name them. They learn to count and learn their first alphabet with animal pictures. They also see animals in a zoo, birds in a park, fish in an aquarium or fishpond and they watch animals on television.

Children perceive their pets as special friends and important family members. They socially interact with them, show affection and the animals inspire the child’s intelligence. The child will understand and identify with the animal’s emotions and learn how to take care and responsibility towards the animal. Caring for the animals exercises the child’s imagination that can help him extend care to another human being.

Research has found that children who had pet at childhood are more empathetic, have high emotional intelligence, have good social values and people skills and have higher self-esteem. Their emotional intelligence of understanding their own emotions and that of their best friend the animal (pet) develops from an early age and later in life, this can be extended to other human beings.

Through the child-animal relationship, the child will develop empathy, generosity, compassion, helpfulness, care and responsibility which will be beneficial in the long-run. These skills can be beneficial in addressing the problem of violence, bullying in schools and promote morally ethical behaviour in children.

Cruelty to animal is an undesirable behaviour. If this is not addressed, the child may become a bully and an aggressive and violent person in the future. The parents should talk to the child and make him understand how the animal feels when it is beaten or mistreated. This depends on the age of the child so a toddler’s mishandling of an animal may not be serious than a 10-year old. Also, the frequency and extent of the mistreatment should be noted to see if it’s a recurring habit or a one-off thing. Help the child to imagine himself being the animal and how he would feel if he is being mistreated. Then teach the child how to show kindness, love and care to the animal.

Kids learn from parents so the parents should also show empathy towards the animal for the child to learn from. Showing, kindness, love and care for animals by parents will rub onto the child.


Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is an element of emotional intelligence and is related to success in many areas of development – personal, social and academic. Empathy is a human trait that many people have a “low reserve” thus all the problems we have in the world today. Empathy skills can also be cultivated and developed. Parents can help children develop empathy by using the human-animal relationship. Children naturally love and are fascinated by animals. Parents can take advantage of that by fostering animal care, thereby inspiring the child’s intelligence and imagination to be empathetic and extend care in another person. Learning how to respond empathetically is also the best antidote to violence, bullying, and other unwanted aggressive behavior.

Video on The Six Habits of Highly Empathetic People

Daniel Goleman's Books on Emotional Intelligence


Marko Todoric from Novi Sad on March 16, 2017:

We should all teach our children to be kind and respectful to animals. Child animal relationship not only that develop empathy in children but it also teaches children about the value of life, they learn patience, responsibility and much more.

Everyone should take a moment to read this amazing article:

James Herrera from Los Angeles, California on November 01, 2014:

I am really excited to read your hub. I enjoy learning everything I can about human emotions and behaviors. I too believe that relationships with animals can offer so much to children, as well as adults. Animals teach us all about non-verbal communication. We use verbal communication to the point that younger generations are unaware of most of the non verbal communication that we do everyday. Our need to communication with a family member (the pet) who cannot say what it is feeling, forces us to ponder: "I wonder what (the pet) is feeling when he wags he's tail like crazy." anyway you get my point. I really just wanted to say thank you for your hub, great information.

kejanny on April 17, 2013:

Yes, that's my daughter rescuing two stray puppies.

kidscrafts from Ottawa, Canada on April 17, 2013:

Is it your daughter with the puppies? Very nice picture.... very nice smile!

Kejanny (author) from Papua New Guinea on April 17, 2013:

Hi Joelle,

Thank you for visiting this hub and sharing your family's experience with cats. Had a good laugh where you said "they don't tell your secrets". Very true.

It's interesting learning about people in the military adopting dogs while in service in a foreign land. Dogs are man's best friend and I agree they bring peace and comfort.

My dad owns a farm where I grew up, with many kinds of animals - cows, horses, pigs, dogs, cats, ducks and chicken. Writing this hub was special for me, too.

Best regards,


kidscrafts from Ottawa, Canada on April 15, 2013:

Great hub Kejanny.

I love the point you made about children that perceive their pets as special friends and important family members. I grew up with cats and they were my confidants... the great thing is they don't tell your secrets. And as you said, animals for sure help develop empathy with kids.

As an adult, I continued to have cats at home.... and my kids have too! So the tradition continues!

When I think about animals, I also think of what they bring to people in the military who adopt a dog while in service in Afghanistan for example. Those dogs I am sure bring them some peace and comfort far away from home in so hard conditions!

Thank you for sharing this beautiful hub! Nice pictures :-)

Kejanny (author) from Papua New Guinea on April 03, 2013:

Thank you Edwin.

Edwin Rutsch on January 02, 2013:

May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.

The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

Kejanny (author) from Papua New Guinea on December 30, 2012:

Thanks eHealer for visiting and leaving such wonderful comments. Yes, teaching and learning empathy is part of intelligence psychology, new age critical thinking.

Deborah from Las Vegas on December 29, 2012:

Kejeanny, this is a fascinating and beautiful hub! Empathy has mostly been assumed over the years, however, it didn't always evolve naturally in a child, and finding one's conscious is not always guaranteed. I think teaching and learning empathy as a skill is absolutely new age and critical thinking. I have found many people in my travels without it. Thanks for such a great read and fascinating information! You rock! I pinned and Facebooked you!

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