Our daughter, Alice, was 18 months old when my husband and I took her to visit friends who have a child the same age. As they were playing, both girls reached for the same toy phone. That was no surprise. Neither was the tearful outburst that erupted when Alice snatched it. But what happened next was unexpected: Hearing her playmate’s cries, Alice held the phone out to her and blew kisses with the other hand. Turns out, my daughter felt more empathy than I’d realized.
We often associate the toddler years with willful assertions of “Me!” and “Mine!” But underneath is a budding recognition that other people have feelings too. In fact, this is a great time to nurture caring. “Adults should do everything possible to help toddlers learn to be empathetic,” says Carol Anne Wien, Ph.D., an early-childhood expert and professor emeritus at York University, in Toronto. “It’s the basis of all relationships.” Fortunately, there are plenty of simple but powerful ways to encourage your child.
Even the chattiest toddlers might not have the words for some of the big emotions they encounter. That’s one reason Grace Resurreccion, a mom in Anaheim, California, used to bring up feelings in conversations with her then-2-year-old son, Victor. For example, when his baby brother cried, she asked Victor why. “Victor might say, ‘ouch’ or ‘fall’ and then he’d go pat his brother on the back,” she says. Other times, she’d offer guidance: “Do you think your brother is sad because you took his toy?” These exchanges helped to reinforce Victor’s growing awareness of others’ feelings and to teach him the vocabulary to talk about them. Toddlers adore the spotlight, so feel free to make your child the center of his own lesson. Pull out a photo album and point to pictures of him looking thrilled, calm, or cranky; then label the feeling and talk about what caused it. You might say, “You were so excited when everyone sang ‘Happy Birthday.’” Better yet, describe instances in which he has been kind or helpful to others. “Toddlers love to look back at little things they’ve said or done,” Dr. Wien explains. “Telling these stories is one way parents can make children aware of how their actions affect people.”
Watching you interact with other people is among the most powerful ways your child develops empathy, says Deborah Best, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Wake Forest University, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Use opportunities to show sensitivity: Ask your partner how the day went, hold the door for an old man, or help a child who has fallen on the playground. “When you model empathy, you show your toddler how to do it too,” says Dr. Best. Chances are, your child is already following your example. Have you ever noticed her using a high-pitched, singsong tone—what experts call “motherese”—when attempting to comfort another child? “When your toddler sees you consoling someone, she picks up on your tone of voice and body language,” says Dr. Wien. “The next time that happens, she’ll try to assist in the same way.”
If you think about it, toddlerhood is arguably the first time in your child’s life that his desires and yours are not always in sync. When he was a baby, if he wanted to eat, you wanted to feed him. Now if he wants to eat—but only a big bowl of ice cream—you might not let him. “He’s thinking ‘I don’t get this. What’s going on here?’ ” says Alison Gopnik, Ph.D., author of The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children. Expand on his realization that others’ feelings may not be the same as his own by encouraging interaction with many kinds of people. “This will teach him that people think and feel differently, starting with basic things, like, ‘My mom likes broccoli, but my babysitter doesn’t,’” Dr. Gopnik explains. As your toddler gets older, you can introduce him to more hands-on ways of recognizing and meeting others’ needs. Letting him help care for a family pet—by pouring its food into a bowl or brushing its fur—will give him a daily opportunity to think beyond himself. If you notice a child crying at his playgroup, point out that something is wrong and say, “Let’s give her a toy.” Maybe the gesture will soothe the other child; maybe it won’t. Either way, your toddler will have gotten valuable practice at learning to respond to another person’s feelings.