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Supper was not going well for 2-year-old Benjamin. As his frustrations escalated to the brink of a full-on tantrum, his 4-year-old sister, Ellie, assessed the scene. "He's angry," she told her mother, Susan Rivers, of Newton, Massachusetts. "What can we do to make him happy?" With her mom's help, Ellie brainstormed a few options. Perhaps they could offer Benjamin a cookie. Or maybe playing with his Legos would bring him out of his spiral. "She was really trying to understand his feelings and figure out what strategies she could use to reduce his frustration and cheer him up," Rivers says.
Ellie's concern for her brother is touching, to be sure. But it could also be the key to her having a more joyful life. Empathy -- the ability to understand and be sensitive to other people's feelings -- helps us to be more deeply attached to our family, friends, and even strangers. "Empathy is probably the greatest single gift of our species," says Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., a senior fellow at the Child Trauma Academy, in Houston, and the coauthor of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential -- and Endangered. "We wouldn't have been able to survive without creating relationships and groups that could function together."
Putting yourself in someone else's shoes is also a crucial building block for other caring emotions. "It's how we develop gratitude, hope, and compassion -- which is the ability to act on your empathy," explains Christine Carter, Ph.D., a sociologist and happiness expert at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. One study there found that kids as young as 18 months could master a key component of empathy: the ability to tune in to people's emotions. By age 4, they move beyond making physical caring gestures and start to think about others' feelings in relation to their own. Many of these responses happen naturally, but you can make a more conscious effort to promote empathy-boosting experiences for your children. Consider these 11 things you can do to raise a truly caring child.
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