It’s All About Empathy: Nurturing a Toddler’s Compassion Potential

Welcome to the January Carnival of Natural Parenting: Parenting resolutions!
This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month we’re writing about how we want to parent differently — or the same — in the New Year. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

The Carnival of Natural Parenting asked this month for us to think about our parenting resolutions for 2010.  On the cusp of having a one-year-old, it seemed like a great time for thinking about what I want to theme my parenting on in the next year.  My theme for 2009 was definitely Attachment.  I wanted Aellyn to learn that the world was a safe place, mommy (or daddy) would always be there to take care of her needs.  Attachment is such an important base for any other parent-child interaction so of course I’ll continue that but for 2010 I think my theme will be Empathy.

em·pa·thy (ěm’pə-thē)  

n.  Identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.

Empathy is for grown ups?

When you think of the myriad things that a child learn in their second year of life empathy may not seem to be at the forefront.  Walking, fine motor skills, rudimentary language, etc. probably come to mind.  The toys and books designed for this age are primarily to enforce these skills – blocks, shape sorters, books with first words like colors.  There isn’t anything wrong with these items and I plan on having a few around but, in all honesty, I think a parent would have to go out of their way to stop a child from learning these things.  At this age a baby has a driving need to explore and know their environment.  By ensuring a safe environment free of violence (yelling or physical punishment) and plenty of opportunity to say yes to her, Aellyn will surely learn her letters, numbers, and colors (it is, in fact, the primary philosophy of unschooling that learning is the natural state of children if left unimpeded by “teaching”).

Empathy, however, seems to be somewhat different.  Humans appear to be hardwired for empathy from birth (see below) but its development is based on interactions with other people and thus is highly dependent on the quality and quantity of those interactions.  Empathy has also traditionally been left to the school-age crowd since it was believed that pre-school children were not capable of Theory of Mind, or the understanding that others have different views than the self, a cornerstone of empathy.  Recent research, however, shows that  even infants have the rudimentary behavior needed for empathy.

  • At 7-9 months of age infants understand the concept of attention to objects by others.  This shared-attention is result of the baby understanding that a person besides themselves finds an object of interest, and hence has a different thought.  (Baron-Cohen, S. (1991). Precursors to a theory of mind: Understanding attention in others. In A. Whiten (Ed.), Natural theories of mind: Evolution, development and simulation of everyday mindreading (pp. 233-251). Oxford: Basil Blackwell)
  • At 12 months old infants can predict the behavior of someone else, an essential ingredient of empathy.  (Falck-Ytter, T., Gredebäck, G., & von Hofsten, C (2006). Infants predict other people’s action goals. Nature Neuroscience, 9 (7), 878-879. (PDF 138kB))
  • 18 month olds show understanding of another person’s goals and intentions but do not do so for inanimate objects.  (Meltzoff, A. (1995). Understanding the intentions of others: Re-enactment of intended acts by 18-month-old children. Developmental Psychology, 31, 838-850.)
  • 24 month olds display comforting behavior.
    “Recent developments in research cast doubt on early conceptions of young children as primarily egocentric and uncaring of others’needs. Studies reviewed indicate a broad range of social competencies children bring to their interpersonal relationships.  As early as 2 years of age, they show (a) the cognitive capacity to interpret, in simple ways, the physical and psychological states of others, (b) the emotional capacity to experience, affectively, the state of others, and (c) the behavioral repertoire that permits the possibility of attempts to alleviate discomfort in others.” (Zahn-Waxler, C., & Radke-Yarrow, M. (1990). The origins of empathic concern. Motivation and Emotion, 14, 107-130.)

Why Empathy?

Empathy is the foundation for a variety of skills/attitudes I aspire to for Aellyn.

Clearly, empathy is at least as important as the cultivation of the other skills Aellyn will learn in the next year.

Nurturing Empathy in a Toddler

My parenting goal for 2010 is to find ways to nurture Aellyn’s natural tendencies toward empathy through play.

1.  Books

I’ve recently read several great articles about the influence of children’s literature on the development of empathy (Children’s Literature and Empathy).

Feelings for Little Children Series.  This series come in Mad, Happy, Silly, and Sad versions and is designed for 1-3 year olds.  From the publisher website:

“Mad, Happy, Silly, and Shy are charming beginner’s introductions to a feelings vocabulary. The sooner parents start using language to express feelings with their babies, the sooner toddlers will be able to say how they feel. Parents know how much easier their job is when their toddlers can make themselves understood!  Mad, Happy, Silly, and Shy will give the youngest children a head start on the road to healthy expression of feelings. These unique board books fill an unmet need in a most engaging way.”

My Many Colored Days by Dr. Suess.  This is a classic that provides many different ways to express feelings.  For example, “On Purple Days/ I’m sad./ I groan./ I drag my tail./ I walk alone.”  A marriage retreat that DH and I went to stressed the importance of finding a variety of ways to describe our feelings and one was color.  Clearly they were on to something.

Baby Faces.  This is a favorite of mine because it uses photographs of real babies which Aellyn always seems to respond to more.

Feelings (Reading Rainbow Book).  This book has several short stories that each highlight a feeling.

I’m Gonna Like Me: Letting Off a Little Self-Esteem by Jamie Lee Curtis. I love this book. It doesn’t deal with empathy per se but I think self-esteem is such an important part of empathy. If you don’t love yourself you can’t love others, right?

2.  Toys and Games

For Aellyn’s first birthday I simply must get this wonderful toy!

It is called a Kimochis (Japanese for feelings) and there are several styles (adorable website btw).  I really want the one in the video – Cloud.  I think I might be able to sew some additional feeling pieces for him but they do sell the kits and each one comes with instructions on how to engage your child with the doll.

Do2Learn has printable emotion cards that I plan to make into flash cards for Aellyn (although I could probably just draw something myself).  If you have older kids that can use the computer they have a great interactive Feelings Game too that is free. Also, check out Emotions Bingo and Faceland.

I Never Forget A Face. This is a memory game, which is probably a few years away for Aellyn but I think exposure to multicultural images from a young age is also important.  I want Aellyn’s empathy to reach beyond people that are like her.

Modeling for Mommy

“Our children are watching us live, and what we are shouts louder than anything we can say.”
Wilferd A. Peterson quotes

I love this quote. It is so true. Teaching empathy isn’t just about helping children develop feeling words but about showing them empathy and displaying empathy for others in my own actions.  When someone cuts me off in traffic I can let road rage take over or I can say “they must be in a hurry.  That must be frustrating for them.” I also want to name my own emotions. “Mommy is frustrated because traffic is bad.” And reflect Aellyn’s emotions by giving them a name. “I know you are sad that bathtime is over.”

My Reading List

Some books (and online resources) I want to read this year that will help me focus on parenting with empathy.  (I also love How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, which I’ve already read.)

Canada seems to be a step ahead of us in the importance of empathy in parenting and education. I found the following 2 sites that I want to explore further. Empathetic Parenting from the Canadian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Seeds of Empathy (Roots of Empathy for older children).

Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child by Mary Gordon
Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others by Marco Iacoboni
Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child by Daniel Goleman

I hope to blog about this more through out the year(s) since I think it is just so core to many of my other parenting choices.

Do you have any tools or tips for empathy in parenting?

Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!
Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:
(All the links should be active by noon on Jan. 12. Go to Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama for the most recently updated list.)

• To Yell or Not to YellThe Adventures of Lactating Girl
• It Is All About Empathy: Nurturing a Toddler’s Compassion PotentialBaby Dust Diaries
• To my babies: this year…BluebirdMama
• Mindfully Loving My ChildrenBreastfeeding Moms Unite!
• January Carnival of Natural Parenting: ResolutionsCode Name: Mama
• Imperfect MotherConsider Eden
• ResolutionsCraphead (aka Mommy)
• FC Mom’s Parenting Resolutions 2010FC Mom
• What’s in a Resolution?Happy Mothering
• January Carnival of Natural Parenting: Parenting resolutionsHobo Mama
• Natural Parenting ResolutionsLittle Green Blog
• This year, I will mostly…Look Left of the Pleiades
• Parenting ResolutionsThe Mahogany Way
• I Resolve to Breastfeed In Public More Oftenmama2mama tips
• Moving to Two KidsMegna the Destroyer
• Use LoveMomopoly
• My parenting resolutionsMusings of a Milk Maker
• Talkin’ ’bout My ResolutionsNavelgazing
• Parenting ResolutionsOne Starry Night
• Invitations, not resolutionsRaising My Boychick
• No more multitasking during kid timeThe Recovering Procrastinator
• I need to slow down, smell those roses AND the poopy diapersTales of a Kitchen Witch Momma
• Resolutely Parenting in 2010This Is Worthwhile

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20 thoughts on “It’s All About Empathy: Nurturing a Toddler’s Compassion Potential

  1. Wow, so glad I read this. I remember being told that 4 year olds aren’t usually empathetic or that kids can’t really develop empathy until around age 4. When I just had my son, my experience jibed with that “fact.” But then I had my little girl and she seemed empathetic so early, even without teaching (though perhaps with modeling?).My 6 year old boy seems to really be lacking in empathy and I never thought to try to “teach” it to him because I figured some people are just more empathetic than others or that it is a learned skill that he will master at some point. I still partly feel that way, but I also think that maybe I should work with him a little more. He is very resistant to being taught (that’s why we are unschoolers!), but simply pointing things out in books or movies or TV shows so that he can better label these things.Anyway, thanks for the research and links. I will definitely have to read more about this and find ways to help my son.


  2. These are some really great references. As a mother of a two-year-old I’m always looking for things to read to further my education (cuz, God knows raising a child requires education!).This is great! I’m so glad the Carnival brought me your way!


  3. What an amazing post. Thanks for these resources – I’ll check them out (assuming they’re also available in the UK). I must admit this isn’t something I’ve given a whole heap of thought to; I’m more of a “wing it” type person in some ways; so this is food for thought.


  4. Have you tried Feeleez? I haven’t but they look great. It’s a series of cards with faces making different emotions but without the words so kids get to decide what the person is feeling. Might be a bit advanced for your young one right now but they’re a pretty net product.


  5. Awesome post! Thanks. I appreciate all the resources and research.I think in some ways Empathy is an evolving skill that develops continually over the course of your whole life. I could see why the Theory of Mind experiments (the one with the dolls hiding objects) focused on that 3-5 age but I think the aspect they were looking at is only a part of the whole. I have observed empathy in my 3 mo old daughter when she cried when I was pillow fighting with her big brother. She thought I was hurting him and got upset. It was breathtaking to observe in such a young baby. But we are social creatures and we survive because we live in groups so I think we must be hardwired to tune into others’ emotional states.However, I personally think that a true, complex understanding of empathy really doesn’t even develop until adulthood. I know that I didn’t get a real grip on it until I was at least 25.Such an interesting topic. Thank you so much. I agree – it’s never too young to teach, I mean show our children to care for each other and to be concerned with each other’s experience.


  6. Great post! I have the book “How to Talk So . . .” and well, haven’t read it yet. But I want to! I feel like my number one thing is, like your quote suggested, kids model what they see their parents do. The best thing I can do on a daily basis is show them empathy.


  7. Fascinating post! I definitely agree with you that it is possible for young children to feel empathy. I see this in my kids (3 and 5) when their baby sister cries, when I hurt myself, etc. The could use some work being empathetic for each other, however. I think just talking about how different feelings are displayed is helpful, because then they recognize what others are feeling and when they might need comforting or need to be left alone. My daughter’s preK class did a lot of work on feeling this fall and it was neat to see what she understood.


  8. Paige- What a wonderful post. I’m so glad Dana introduced us. I have been focusing on how to “teach” Elliot- new words in English & Spanish. After reading this I realized I have not taught him how to express his feelings. I am not even tempered and my actions DO speak louder than words. We will be working on Empathy is this house- mommy and baby boy!


  9. Agree on the kickbutt post! I think that doll is odd, but I really liked the power of the word “sorry” and how easy it was to pull the word/symbol out. I need to think more about that doll and how it’s used. I’m a teacher, and it actually seems like something that would be very useful for a classroom. Sometimes it helps to give kids a “script” to use to say difficult things- it can be a stepping stone. Thanks for this lovely bit of food for thought!


  10. Not being a mama means that my input is limited. But i found your post interesting, for i had just read Lynette’s post ( of how her 2 year old dumped a lot of water on her in the bath & his concern for her when she reacted as you do when your body tries to breathe water.I would think that the toddler years are those of experimenting & learning about their world & how their world reacts to their own actions. Which means that they are experimenting with dumping a huge glass of water over mommy’s head (not knowing the result) & then being concerned about the outcome. I imagine that the next year would have a number of such incidents.And i hope you enjoy every minute! They do grow up so fast & time flies by. 🙂


  11. What a thoughtful post! I agree that is very hard to keep kids from learning. They want to learn! They learn in everything they do,daily.I also like those books you suggested. My girls love Dr.Suess.Like you said, actions speak louder than words. In trying to help my children understand their feelings, I’ve had to learn how to keep mine in check as well. When they are playing around the house with each other, I hear them saying and acting how I do in certain situations. Sometimes it’s really cute and funny. Other times I’m thinking “oh no, I sound like that”Thank you for following my blog. Looking forward to reading more from you.


  12. One thing we’ve tried to do since Peanut was very little was treat her like we would treat an adult. So if she really wants my attention and I’m busy I don’t just ignore her, I acknowledge her and tell her I’ll be done in a couple minutes (like right now for instance lol). She may not understand what I’m saying, but treating her how I would like to be treated shows empathy.


  13. Wow! What an impressive, thorough post. Thank you for all the wonderful resources. I’m looking forward to checking them out. Blessings!


  14. This is a very well researched post – very interesting topic to think about. In my training as a health professional we spent a lot of time learning about empathy and developing the skills needed to effectively demonstrate our empathy (not to be confused with sympathy). It was surprising just how many people weren’t innately empathic (myself included at some points) – even as young twentysomethings. With my 3 month old, I often wonder how I’m going to ensure I’m raising an empathic child who understands the struggles of others. This post gave me lots to think about. Thanks.


  15. Thanks for all the great suggestions with books and resources. I like the non-violent communication books as well; they are worth a read for inspiration. GOod luck with your resolution.


  16. This is a very well researched post – very interesting topic to think about. In my training as a health professional we spent a lot of time learning about empathy and developing the skills needed to effectively demonstrate our empathy (not to be confused with sympathy). It was surprising just how many people weren't innately empathic (myself included at some points) – even as young twentysomethings. With my 3 month old, I often wonder how I'm going to ensure I'm raising an empathic child who understands the struggles of others. This post gave me lots to think about. Thanks.


  17. Thanks for all the great suggestions with books and resources. I like the non-violent communication books as well; they are worth a read for inspiration. GOod luck with your resolution.


  18. Pingback: My Homeschooling Philosophy: Part 2 | Baby Dust Diaries

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