The Early Signs
Studies show that around 2 years of age, children start to show genuine empathy, understanding how other people feel even when they don't feel the same way themselves. And not only do they feel another person's pain, but they actually try to soothe it.
A sudden burst of sweetness out of a child whose mantra has been "mine, mine, mine" for most of her life may make it seem like your child's empathy switch just clicks on one day. But acquiring this rather sophisticated social skill doesn't really happen overnight. Here are the early signs of empathy:
Infancy: As hard as it may be to believe that empathy starts this young, the foundation for compassion actually seems to be part of our biological wiring. A case in point: In baby nurseries, one infant's crying is likely to prompt others to follow suit. The sounds other humans make attract newborns, so they become distressed when they hear the wails of another person. Of course, they can't say "I feel for that other baby," but behaviorally, that's what they're doing.
6 to 8 months: The charming flirtatiousness that babies exhibit around this age shows that they're beginning to understand that they are people, separate from their parents, a crucial milestone in interpreting other people's feelings. These coy grins designed to elicit a smile are how your baby demonstrates that she understands how behavior elicits reactions and emotions.
12 to 18 months: Right around their first birthday, children start "social referencing" -- looking to their caregivers for information. They learn that facial expressions speak for different emotions. And at around 18 months, children exhibit the ultimate precursor to empathy -- understanding that other people have feelings different from our own. In one study, a group of 18-month-olds were offered crackers or broccoli -- and most of them preferred crackers. Then they were set up with a with a group of adults who made "yucky" and "yummy" faces for both foods. The upshot: Toddlers who saw the adults make a yucky face for crackers and a yummy face for broccoli gave them the broccoli, even though the kids preferred the crackers.