When my firstborn son was only a year old, I would sometimes pretend to cry in front of him. "Boo-hoo, boo-hoo," I'd say, crumpling up my face. He'd come over and pat my face, saying, "Nice, nice." Then I'd smile at him, "comforted" by his concern.
When does the ability to empathize actually begin?
According to Samuel Osherson, Ph.D., author of The Passions of Fatherhood, children from almost the beginning have some budding capacity to empathize. "At some level children are constantly trying to match what they're feeling with what the other is feeling," he said. "A lot of it is also of course imitative."
Research has shown that by two, certainly, children recognize the difference between themselves and others. That's not a very sophisticated form of empathy, but it's a start. And the ability to put oneself in the place of another, feelings and all, continues to evolve throughout childhood.
When Lucy (I've changed some names) at age 3 would notice that her mother Patti was sad, she would put her arms around her mom and say, "That's okay, Mommy. I will give you a hug."
Never say you're not upset when you are, if you want your children to learn to be sensitive to the feelings of others, note Linda and Richard Eyre, authors of Teaching Your Children Sensitivity.
For a while, Patti wondered if she was harming her child by allowing her to occassionally witness a marital spat. She asked Lucy if she was feeling scared.
"She told me she wasn't scared, but she was mad," Patti told me. "She knew the difference."
Of course, Lucy was a normal kid, and sometimes she bopped her baby sister over the head. That's when her mother stepped in, set a time-out, and let her know that bopping people hurts them and that she would have to tell her sister she was sorry. Such concepts didn't take hold immediately, but after a great many repetitions.
Work on developing the vocabulary of feelings. Talk about different adjectives that can be used for feelings, from simple ones like happy, sad, and frustrated, to more complex ones like agitated, perplexed, and elated. Ask each other, "How do you feel?" and really listen to the answer.
Such simple everyday dialogues are a major contributor to a child's growing sensitivity. Said Osherson:
When you're watching TV or seeing a movie together, do you talk to your children about what the characters must feel when things happen? If a sibling or playmate is feeling hurt, jealous, or excluded, help your child understand how the other person is experiencing those feelings.
According to Osherson, four to eight is a problematic age, and so:
Cognitively, they're limited at that age as to how much they truly can take the perspective of the other, and on the other hand, there are surprising ways children at that age will suddenly become sensitive to the other.
When Max, the son of Donna Lee Jonte, was six, he attended a small art class with four other children, and one of them was unusually large. Jonte told me:
This overwhelming child seemed to attack the other children, though he was only trying to hug them and make friends. Max's art teacher was a good mediator who helped me see Max had to become sensitive to Troy's problem. Instead of saying Troy is a horrible monster, Max decided that Troy has this problem where he can't see how small other children are. Troy is not bad, it's just that sometimes his behavior is scary. We taught Max to use words that don't have value judgments.
When Max's baby sister was born, Max acted out over trivial things for a solid month, Jonte told me. When Max would rock Emma's cradle too roughly, Jonte would describe her own feelings: "That makes me sad when you do that to Emma, so please stop."
Still, Jonte isn't sure her efforts made a difference, as her son was probably too distressed at the time. Character traits take time to develop.
BE A MODEL
Remember to point out positive examples of empathy, suggest Barbara C. Unell and Jerry L. Wyckoff, Ph.D., authors of 20 Teachable Virtues: Practical Ways to Pass on Lessons of Virtue and Character to Your Children. For instance, if your partner sees that you are cold and brings you a blanket, say to him in front of your kids, "Thanks! You could see I was getting cold and knew I could use a blanket."
"I want my kids to be aware of how other people are feeling and sometimes I'm hardly aware of what they're feeling," said Osherson. For example, say your son whacks your daughter over the head with a pillow and makes her cry. You can of course start with "What do you think she was feeling there, son?" But you can also start a step back and say, "What just happened here? Where were you at?"
"That also communicates to the child that you are aware they may have had a feeling, even though they may not know what it is. It shows you want to understand both sides of what just happened," Osherson said.
He added that the ability to empathize gets driven out very quickly when kids feel too shamed by discipline techniques. "We need to be aware of moments when we put kids on the spot and then rub their faces in empathy in a way that they can't manage, because they're too busy trying to protect themselves and get themselves out of the spot they're in."
It's a matter of timing, noted Osherson, and
sometimes kids feel abandoned when we try to take the other perspective too quickly. What they're hearing us say is that they're wrong. A kid who's coming back home upset is emotionally trying to rub up against their parent and feel comforted. They're weeping in their words, and they want you to comfort them or get outraged momentarily with them.
Be in that experience with them. Then later, much later, come back and talk about other points of view. That's how to model empathy.