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Toddler Empathy

Psychologists change their minds about toddler empathy

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Some thought a lack of toddler empathy is an evolutionary imperative to help children focus on developing their own survival skills first. They were wrong. I stopped believing what the scientists and development psychologists report about empathy after raising my own toddler.

Toddler EmpathyMy toddler’s favorite game is called “Give Mommy Things.” All day, she picks up random things, walks over to me, falling once or twice along the way, and thrusts them into my hands with a huge grin. Her favorite thing to bring me is my mobile phone, which explains the cracked screen. This morning, she pulled a pair of dirty panties from the laundry basket, put it on her head like a hat, walked over to me and thrust them into my hands. (As if I didn’t have enough reminders that it was time to do the laundry.)

Sometimes, they are things she likes – like blocks or a favorite toy. Other times she wants me to show her how something works. But most of the time, they are something she knows that I like.

The conventional wisdom said children under the age of two are incapable of displaying toddler empathy. But my two year old is generous beyond the simple games of fetch we play – she’s empathetic to other children, too. She’ll give them her favorite toy, or her sippy cup, and all she wants in return is a smile. She hands me a diaper and her wipes when we are changing her – although, to be fair, she also takes about 10 wipes out of the container before I am able to stop her. Is it possible that maybe very young children are aware of the people around them but we don’t notice it? Why do so many assume toddler empathy is not possible?

As it turns out, the science is changing. Toddlers are now thought to be capable of noticing the emotions of others. According to SevenCounties.org children as young as 12 months are capable of observing another person’s emotions through body language, especially distress. A German study showed that 14 month old children will help if they see a way to do so. They demonstrated these results by having parents intentionally dropped a clothespin on the ground when they were hanging clothes up to dry. The majority of children aged 14 months and up would run over and pick the clothespin up off the ground and then hand it to their parents. So, it would seem that children are capable of both observing emotions of others and reacting to them much earlier than originally thought. Toddler empathy is possible, after all.

The next question, then, is how to encourage our toddlers to react to emotions in a productive way, as well as to encourage them to be helpers. Dr. Laura Markham has an excellent article on how to encourage emotional intelligence.  While geared towards older children, some of the suggestions, such as listening to them and seeing things from the point of view of your child, can be modified to apply to toddlers and encourage toddler empathy.

ScienceDaily cites a study in which children were confronted with a number of tasks, but each time some kids were asked “if they wanted to help” while others were asked if “they wanted to be a helper.” The children responded significantly more positively to the usage of nouns. This makes sense, as it appeals to their growing sense of identity, rather than simply an action.

So, if you want your toddler to help out around the house more, then it helps to create part of their identity around being helpful. This applies to emotional awareness as well – we should use descriptive nouns instead of verbs because it helps children to adapt an emotional awareness as part of that child’s identity at an early age. Of course, positive reinforcement here is also important. It’s important to make sure that your toddler knows that you appreciate them helping. We should reward toddler empathy. For instance, if you ask them to pick their blocks up off the floor and they miss one block, focus on the blocks they did pick up, rather than lamenting about the one they missed. This will encourage them to clean up more and hopefully, next time, they’ll do a better job.

My stomach just growled when my daughter toddled over to me, carrying her sippy cup, which is one of her most treasured possessions. She reaches up and puts it in my hands. I laugh and tell her “thank you” and hand it back. So, she sticks the straw in my mouth and says “Tankoo Mama.” I guess she knows I’m hungry!

Now, if she would only stop dropping my phone.

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