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.
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.
When parents are respectful and accepting of a child's feelings, kids become more self-confident and make friends more easily, notes Dr. Kamboukos. "They also do better in school and are more creative, effective problem solvers." Avoid minimizing your child's emotions; saying "There's nothing to cry about" when he's in tears will only frustrate him. Kids need you to attach a name to a feeling so they can learn to distinguish a range of emotions -- and become a caring person. For example, if your child gets in a squabble on a playdate, say, "I know you're mad that Sam took your cookie, but it hurts when you hit him. Tell him you're upset, and ask him to give it back." In time, he'll be more likely to take his friend's feelings into consideration -- and stop acting out.
A child who can interpret facial expressions will get along better with others because she'll understand their emotions, says Gurian. You can help by tearing out pictures from magazines to make a "feelings" scrapbook or poster. When reading together, stop and ask: "Is the girl in that picture happy or sad?" Tap in to your inner actress as you read so she knows a change in voice or body language is also a clue to a feeling.
"The everyday things you do and say reinforce the importance of caring about others," says Marilyn Rabinovitz, director of Shaloh House preschool and kindergarten, in Stoughton, Massachusetts. "Serving turkey dinner at a shelter on a holiday is wonderful, but you send a stronger message if you buy a few extra cans of food each time you go shopping and then drop them off at the food pantry." Just don't send conflicting messages -- if you snap at the cashier for giving you the wrong change, for instance, your child will think it's okay to treat people that way.
Toddlers don't realize yet that what they do (or don't do) affects others. But while a child can't control her feelings, she can change her behavior. The minute you catch her being rude, speak up. "Don't assume that telling a child to say 'sorry' is enough," says Rabinovitz. "You need to tell her why and how she should apologize." Help her recall a similar experience of her own: "Amanda feels upset because you grabbed her toy. Remember how you cried when your brother took your markers yesterday? How can we make Amanda feel better?"
Tell your child how proud you are when he's nice to someone: "I like the way you helped Matthew when he was afraid of the dog. You showed him how to pat it gently." In time, his caring impulses will become conscious choices.
Some feelings are easier than others to explain to 2- and 3-year-olds. "They relate to 'happy' or 'mad' because those are visual and concrete," says Dr. Kamboukos. "It's harder to teach a toddler about subtle feelings, like being disappointed or embarrassed."
In these cases, how you respond to your child's behavior is especially important. For example, if your child points at a woman in a wheelchair, use it as an opportunity to teach him about emotions. Calmly explain that though a wheelchair looks unusual to him, the woman might feel embarrassed if people stare at her. "Children grasp the meaning of a word when they hear it again and again," says Gurian. Remember: Your toddler won't know he's being unkind unless you tell him.
Then, help your child figure out what he doesn't understand or may be afraid of: "The lady needs a wheelchair because it's hard for her to walk." Try to find a connection to your child's life: "We use your stroller when it's hard for you to walk."
Help your child understand his emotions with these books.
When Sophie Gets Angry -- Really, Really Angry..., by Molly Bang. Sophie tries to stay calm when her sister wants to share a toy.
Hands Are Not for Hitting, by Martine Agassi. Kids learn peaceful ways to deal with their pals.
Mama, Do You Love Me? by Barbara Joosse. A little girl tests her mother's love.
Maisy Loves You, by Lucy Cousins. Maisy shows her friends how much she cares through sweet gestures and gifts.