Leading Kids: Is Empathy or Compassion Better?

By Tim Elmore


A high school principal recently told me that the mother of one of his students requested her daughter be taken out of her civics class and moved to a different one. When he asked why, mom explained that she was distracted and anxious in her current class. When he inquired why a different class would be better, the mother replied that her daughter’s former boyfriend was in her current class, and it would help to get her out of that environment.


Most caring adults would agree that this mom was displaying empathy.  


We celebrate empathy in our day. It’s one of the competencies in Social and Emotional Learning programs. I am encouraged that more and more educators are teaching it to students and more nonprofits are leveraging empathy to recruit volunteers. It’s such a need. We’d all agree empathy is certainly better than apathy, which describes so many people today.


But empathy is a stepping stone to what our students really need from us: compassion.


What’s the Difference Between Empathy and Compassion?

Empathy is not feeling sorry for someone in pain. That’s sympathy. Rather, it is mentally putting yourself in the suffering person’s shoes to feel their pain. As Harvard professor Arthur Brooks reminds us, “It’s the difference between ‘get well soon’ and ‘I can imagine how much discomfort you must be feeling right now.’ Evidence suggests that empathy really can lessen other people’s burdens. In a series of experiments documented in 2017, participants were found to experience significant physical pain relief when hearing someone express empathy. This was reported in the European Journal of Neuroscience in 2017.  


But it’s merely a stepping stone— a means to an end.


When empathy grows into compassion, it becomes more helpful for both you and the person for whom you demonstrate it. Each one leads to a different response: 

  • Empathy is feeling their pain and wanting to remove the hardship they’re enduring.
  • Compassion is feeling their pain and wanting to equip them to overcome it from now on.


Why Our Kids Need Compassion from Us

In the example above, the mother felt sympathy for her struggling daughter but was prompted to remove the struggle. That’s empathy. Compassion is feeling deeply for your daughter and working with her to become tough enough to face the hardship and continue. Having raised two adult children, that’s what they needed from me—to leave them in a better spot, able to face similar tough times going forward. It’s better to “prepare the child for the path” than vice versa.   


Yet, it is rare today.


You move from a shared feeling to a redemptive action. It’s the difference between a friend and a nurse if you’re a patient in the hospital. Your friend is comforting because they sit beside you, express empathy for you, and perhaps get you some water to drink. The nurse sees your pain and takes action to remedy the disease. Both are nice, but one is better. Empathy thinks short-term, compassion long-term. 


Empathy feels good to give, but you may feel their pain so deeply that you’re not even able to act. Compassion allows you to practice metacognition and rise above the pain so you can treat the need. Consider the nurse once again. What if your nurse felt empathy for you but couldn’t stand the sight of blood? You need them to be able to act objectively in the presence of pain and blood. 


Caring adults must progress from empathy to compassion for kids. 


Because compassion enables you to rise above the negative emotion and take action—it often moves you to act contrary to empathy so you can benefit the other person. My teammate Melissa recently told me her son, Jackson, filled the family car with fuel but left the gas cap at the station. Jackson acknowledged it when he returned home that night. Melissa encouraged him to return to the gas station to see if it was still there. It was dark, and Jackson felt it was probably gone by then. She insisted he either needed to find it or he’d need to replace it. Her teen then requested his mother go with him, but she reminded him that it’s normal to make mistakes, and that everyone in the family should learn to fix their mistakes. When Jackson didn’t find it, he went to an auto parts store—on his own—and bought a new gas cap. This experience prompted him to find a new way to remember the gas cap; consequently, he’s not lost it since. By the way, Jackson is grateful for his mother’s compassion. He tells her so. 

  • Empathy means giving a man a fish. Compassion is teaching a man to fish. 
  • Empathy feels the hurt, but compassion heals the hurt.
  • Empathy thinks short-term. When we display it, we make things feel nicer today. 
  • Compassion thinks long-term. When we show it, we make things better for them years from now. 


So—how do you move from empathy to compassion? First, I urge you to camp out in the land of empathy for a while before you move to compassion. Be sure they know you feel their pain. Step two is to work on your own toughness. To be tough in the presence of another’s pain does not mean you feel it less. It means to feel the pain without being impaired to act. Empathetic parents suffer with their kids when they’re struggling at college; compassionate parents can resist the urge to call the dean or to drive over to the university and treat their young adults like children. Their compassion drives the parent to consider how much they want their child to be ready for independent living. Too many parents stop at empathy.


Our kids deserve more. We must choose to grow compassion for the next generation. 


Leading Kids: Is Empathy or Compassion Better?