Empathy is key to the development of a person's social competence, says Phillips. To have successful relationships, you have to know how people are feeling and respond appropriately. While even infants exhibit a primitive form of empathy, kids don't really become capable of putting themselves in another's shoes until somewhere between the ages of 3 and 6. Before then, they have trouble seeing the world from anyone's perspective but their own. When a 2-year-old bops his friend on the head, he doesn't understand that it hurts because he hasn't felt anything himself, says Phillips.
But there's a lot you can do to help a child develop empathy. Asking your toddler, "How would you feel if that happened to you?" doesn't cut it, since he's so profoundly egocentric. Instead, explain to him how his actions affect others. If he bites his brother, explain that it hurts and may cause a boo-boo. If you see another child with a skinned knee, talk about how it must sting. And be ready to make those comments over and over again. This is one quality that needs a lot of repeating before you can expect it to take, says Pawel.
Be careful of television. If you watch cartoons in which the characters beat up on one another, point out how, in real life, that would feel bad. While the difference between reality and fantasy is still blurry for your child, you'll plant the seed of an important lesson. At the same time, not all programs are harmful, and some are even beneficial. For example, a 1998 study done at Yale University showed that preschoolers who watched Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood or Barney and Friends tended to get along better with other children than those who didn't. Dorothy Singer, the codirector of Yale University's Family TV Research Center and leader of the study, believes the results reinforce the importance of modeling behavior. These programs convey the message to children that empathy, compassion, and friendship are important components of a happy life. They emphasize sharing, mutual respect, and love. Children who watch these programs model their behaviors after what they see.
Even more crucial is your behavior as a parent. Do unto your child as you want your child to do unto others, says Lerner. That means paying attention to his needs and showing him that you respect his feelings. If he throws his crayons in anger, calmly insist that he help pick them up -- but tell him you understand that he's mad too.