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Teaching Manners Breeds Empathy in Children

“I don’t teach my children manners,” said my friend Sylvia. “I just teach them to treat people like they want to be treated.”

“Mmmm. Interesting concept,” thought I. I asked what she meant.

“Well, manners are just so artificial,” she says. “I don’t want them to be stilted and fake. I just want them to care.”

As much as I understand her concerns about artificiality, I think she’s missing something. I get it that she wants her kids to be empathetic without being fake. But in her efforts to seek authenticity, she isn’t taking into account that empathy is learned and faking often is where we start. Faking it builds the habits of courtesy. Faking it is what we all do sometimes to keep the social wheels turning.

Think about it: Are you always grateful when you say “thank you”? Do you always really want to know when you ask “How are you”? Do you always want to make nice with the person you find yourself standing next to at the office coffeepot? Probably not. But those little rituals of “fakery” are ways that we acknowledge each other and show general respect. It’s not the content that matters. It’s the willingness to be kind, to briefly and pleasantly engage, and to just as pleasantly move on that keeps things civil. You’re faking it about the “what” of the moment. But you’re not at all faking it about something just as important: The need for people to be reasonably considerate of others’ feelings in order to get along. Teaching kids to put their own feelings aside for the moment, to “fake it,” when the situation calls for it, is an important lesson in social skills.

Manners are a codified way each culture has for keeping things pleasant even when we’d rather not. The specifics may differ from country to country or region to region but the intent is much the same. Every language has words of courtesy. Every culture has generally understood rules for polite interaction. Training in those codes starts very, very young. As we teach our kids the words and rituals, the manners, of our culture, we are laying down the foundation for genuine empathy later on.

I remember my oldest’s first adventure with trick or treating at Halloween when she was about 2 1/2. We went to a half dozen neighbors’ homes. By stop number 3, she had the routine down: Say ” Treat!” Get candy. Say “Dank you.” People smile. Move to the next house. Do it again. Cute? Yes. Genuine? Probably not. Genuine gratitude and empathy had to be built over the next ten years. (After which she promptly forgot much of it — at least as far as her parents were concerned — for the teen years. Relax, parents of teens. It does come back.)

Empathy is Developmental

Empathy is a higher-order skill than manners. It requires being able to walk in another’s shoes and to treat the person kindly based on our understanding of their feelings. Infants and toddlers simply can’t do that. They are self-centered little beings whose survival depends on their ability to make adults feel empathic towards them. Still, research shows that babies whose parents are responsive to them develop stronger empathy skills later on.

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Between the ages of 2 1/2 to 3, though, things begin to shift. Toddlers still have difficulty seeing things from someone else’s point of view (any parent of a 2-year-old will tell you that sharing is simply not a priority) but they often respond with something that looks like sympathy if someone they care about acts hurt. Parents who praise their kids for showing sympathy, who talk to them about how others feel, and who insist on the use of the basic courtesy language of please and thank you during the preschool years are doing the teaching necessary for empathy to flower as they get older.

By age 4, most kids can identify with another’s feelings. By kindergarten, they can talk about how people feel in different situations and often know some ways to help someone who is upset feel better. Throughout elementary school these skills become more complex and kids are capable of understanding that other people’s reactions and feelings may be different from their own.

Cultivating Empathy

What can parents do to teach and encourage empathy? Research shows us that there are some very practical and specific things parents can do:

  • Treat children with the same courtesy and empathy as we would any adult. Kids who are loved and treated well have a template for how to treat others. Kids learn what they live.
  • Treat their partner and friends with tact and generosity. Kids also learn what they observe.
  • Model empathic behaviors and good social skills. That means going out of our way to help when someone is hurting. It means explaining to our kids why we volunteer and why we spend time with people who are sick or upset.
  • Teach “manners.” External rituals of manners (even if they are “fake” at times) usually do lead to internal feelings of empathy.
  • Explain. Explain. Explain. Young children can’t be expected to make connections between their behavior and the feelings of others unless we explain it to them. When our kids hurt someone’s feelings or behave selfishly, we must take the time to quietly and calmly ask them to think about how they would feel if someone did it to them.
  • Talk about feelings so children develop an emotional vocabulary. Have conversations where you practice imagining another person’s point of view.
  • Use positive methods of disciplining. Research has shown that authoritarian methods of child-rearing do not promote empathy.

Back to my friend Sylvia: She is a terrific role model of respectful and sympathetic behavior. Despite her protests against manners as artificial, she has taught her kids the social rules. She has taught them to say please, thank you and you’re welcome and to not be gross in public, at least most of the time. And, yes, she has also worked very hard to help her kids develop real feelings of empathy to match those surface rituals of politeness. We have different ways to talk about authenticity but, being good practitioners of empathy, we do understand each other’s point of view.

Teaching Manners Breeds Empathy in Children

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Teaching Manners Breeds Empathy in Children. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 19, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.