Can Toddlers Be Taught How To Be Empathetic?

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Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes, to try to understand how they are thinking and feeling, and to value other opinions.  Can children learn to see someone else’s perspective? Is that even possible? Psychologist Samantha Rodman says it is possible, even for toddlers to start learning. Here are some ways to help cultivate empathy:

1. Create an awareness about emotions

It is important to help children first become aware of their feelings, and your own, by putting them into words. You could say for example, ”I see you are frustrated when you can’t find the puzzle piece.” or ”Mama felt happy when Pappa brought flowers home.”

2. Read books and watch TV/movies together

Reading books together is not only important for language development, but it also gives the opportunity to talk about what is happening with the character’s feelings in the story. The same is true with TV and movies. The storyline often involves challenges and victories which offer great opportunity to talk about emotions. For example, "Nemo looked nervous going to school for the first time, but how do you think he felt after he made friends?"

3. After conflicts discuss the feelings that arose

While children are fighting is not the moment to talk about feelings. It is best to separate children and talk to them individually about their feelings so they can learn how to express their needs in a more constructive way. For example, ”You seemed frustrated that Jonny took your train without asking. Maybe that is why you hit him. It’s not ok to hit, maybe next time you can say, I was playing with the train then, but if you ask I’ll share it with you when I’m done with it.”

4. Be an example of how to resolve conflicts

It is healthy for children of all ages to see parents discuss, argue, compromise and resolve conflict. It is important to keep the tones and words in control and model conflict resolution. It is healthy for children to see when parents make up after the argument as well. Also how to admit wrongs, ask for forgiveness and forgive. If children see this modeled, they will learn themselves how it is possible to engage in healthy conflict resolution. It is important for children to see how people can love each other even if they disagree. For example, "I know you have had a long day at work, and missed dinner time with us. I will do the dishes tonight so you can have some quality time with the kids before they go to bed."

5. Speak for those who can’t speak for themselves

Look for opportunities to put words on the emotions of others who can't speak for themselves. For example, when there is a baby crying, you can ask, "Why do you think that baby is crying? Maybe it's hungry or tired?" Pets are also a great example, "Why is that doggie's tail wagging? Maybe she is happy to see the other dog."

6. Show respect amidst differences

Children are naturally curious and tend to ask questions about anything that catches their interest. If they see a person in a wheelchair for example, and if they ask about it, don't try to quiet them, rather suggest talking with that person to find out how they are more similar than different.  

In summary, children are constantly watching their parents, caregivers, and teachers learning behavior. It is important we, as parents, caregivers, and teachers model empathy.  This means when we are are at the grocery store and someone cuts in line. Or when your spouse had a long day and forgot to pick up some eggs on their way home. We must choose to forgive. Or if we mess up and lose our temper. We must admit our wrong and ask for forgiveness. Even from our children. 

This article is adapted from Samantha Rodman's article, How To Teach Kids Empathy

How have you effectively taught your children empathy? What is the most challenging aspect in modelling empathy? Are there other ways you have found to cultivate empathy in your family?