Ann Crady's 4-year-old daughter, Maya, wouldn't stop crying. She was furious that Crady had left her with a babysitter all afternoon, and she wasn't about to let her mommy forget it. But before Crady could comfort her daughter, her 2-year-old son, Derick, raced over to his older sister to try to calm her down. "As soon as he made eye contact with Maya, she started to relax," says the mom from Palo Alto, California. "Derick just seemed to instinctively know how to help. I was surprised!"
Many parents are confused when they see their toddler show empathy. How can such a young child understand how someone feels and then respond so compassionately? Experts believe this sophisticated ability is hardwired in all kids. "Even though children this age are naturally self-centered, it's also the time when their concern for others starts to shine through," says Michael Gurian, author of Nurture the Nature: Understanding and Supporting Your Child's Unique Core Personality. However, toddlers are still learning how emotions work, so they need your help and encouragement to develop empathy.How Kids Learn Compassion
Even though your toddler's caring side seems to emerge overnight, it's actually been brewing since birth. You set the process in motion when you snuggled your newborn and whispered soothing words to him. "It may seem obvious, but children who have loving parents are more likely to be caring themselves," says Demy Kamboukos, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the New York University Child Study Center. Most experts agree that true empathy doesn't begin to emerge until kids are about 2, and even then, it's inconsistent. Toddlers are still egocentric -- that "me, me, me" attitude helps them gain independence -- so they don't always realize that other people have feelings and needs separate from theirs.
"Kids become more empathetic as they start to figure out who they are," explains Dr. Kamboukos. Once your little one learns to identify her own feelings ("I'm sad"), she'll start recognizing them in others ("My friend Samantha is crying; she's sad too."). Finally, she'll figure out why other people feel sad ("Samantha hurt her knee") and come up with ways to help.
Though each child develops at his own pace, you can help your toddler develop the elements of empathy -- self-control, fairness, respect -- right now.