A 3-year-old who cries out, “Mommy! Look how big that man’s nose is!” will probably be politely shushed by his mother and ignored by the man. An adult who makes an equivalent statement, however, might find his own nose swollen and hurting within seconds. The difference is much more than a matter of social graces. We do not expect 3-year-olds to understand how the things they say affect other people’s emotions. They are not empathic in the way adults or even well-adjusted 6-year-olds are.
To empathize with someone is to understand what he is feeling or, more properly, to understand what you would feel like if you were in his situation. It is an extension of self-concept, but it is far more complex. It requires an awareness that others think of themselves in ways that are both similar to and different from the way you do, and that they also have emotions they associate with those thoughts and images.
Unlike intelligence and physical attractiveness, which depend largely on genetics, empathy is a skill that children learn. Its value is multifold. Children who are empathic tend to do better in school, in social situations, and in their adult careers. Children and teenagers who have the greatest amount of skill at empathy are viewed as leaders by their peers. The best teachers of that skill are the children’s parents.
The precursors of empathy can be seen in children within the first day or two of life. A crying newborn child in a hospital nursery will often trigger crying among other infants in the room. Such crying is not a true display of empathy. The newborn infant appears to be simply responding to a sound that makes her uncomfortable, much as she would to any loud noise.
Toddlers sometimes show behavior that is closer to true empathy in their first efforts to connect another person’s discomfort with their own. When a 2-year-old sees his mother crying, he may offer her a toy he’s been playing with or a cookie he’s been nibbling. He is giving his mother something that he knows has made him feel better when he has cried. It is unclear, however, whether the child understands what his mother is feeling, or is simply upset by the way she is acting, much in the way a puppy will come up and lick the face of someone who’s crying.
By the time a child is about 4 years old, he begins to associate his emotions with the feelings of others. While one child says he has a stomachache, some 4-year-olds may come over and comfort him. Others, much to the bewilderment and horror of parents and teachers, will walk over the to child and punch him in the stomach.
Yet in each case the healthy child is demonstrating his empathy for the one who is ill. The aggressive child does not know what to do with the skill he’s been developing. The other child’s pain makes him feel uncomfortable. Instead of running away or rubbing his own stomach, as he might have done a year earlier, he feels frustrated and lashes out.
Although the best training for empathy begins in infancy, it’s never too late to start. Infants and toddlers learn the most by how their parents treat them when they are cranky, frightened, or upset. By the time a child is in preschool, you can begin talking about how other people feel.
The way you show your own empathy, however, may be more important than anything you say. If your 3-year-old cries out, “Look at the fat lady!” and you publicly bawl out your child and say that he shouldn’t embarrass other people, you’re working against yourself. Instead, quietly and gently explain why saying that may make the woman feel bad. Ask him if he’s ever felt bad because of something a person said. Even so, some 3-year-olds may be too young to comprehend what you are saying.
When a child is about 5, he can learn about empathy by talking about hypothetical problems. How would you feel if someone took a toy away from you? How would your friend feel if someone took a toy away from him? By the time a child is 8, he can grapple with more complex moral decisions in which he must realize that someone else’s feelings may be different from his own.