Teaching Your Toddler Empathy

July 3, 2006

Ari is in the irritating “mine” phase, but I have found that the advice in this MSN column to teach two-year-olds empathy really works.

Anger, which is easy to resort to when your kid embarrassingly hits his friend, usually exacerbates the situation. But when I praise Ari for his kindness or give him small tasks to complete like helping me put away the groceries, even my little emperor at his worst morphs into quite the little helper. He is even learning to say “please” and “thank you,” which is such a relief to me.

Here are some words of wisdom and interesting research in the MSN story:

Human beings are prewired to be empathetic, at least to some extent: Research shows that when one infant in a nursery cries, those who cry along tend to grow up to have the most empathy. (So take heart the next time your baby starts wailing the minute your preschooler breaks down in tears.) Still, 2-year-olds, as any parent knows, are not models of selfless, generous behavior. “They’re not developmentally capable of understanding empathy,” says Jane Nelsen, a child therapist and co-author of Positive Discipline for Preschoolers. “But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep teaching it to them. If your 2-year-old hits her sister, for instance, you can say, ‘It hurts when you hit people. Here’s how you touch nicely. How does that feel?’ At some point your words will kick in — just expect it to take a while.”

It is taking a while. But by asking Ari how he would feel if other kids didn’t share with him and rewarding his good behavior, I am slowly chipping away at the edges of this tough phase.