Three-year-old Jordan enjoys Uncle Bill. Uncle Bill taught him to thumb wrestle, blow milk bubbles out of his nose, and was in the process of introducing him to the fine art of head butting when Jordan’s mom intervened. Even without the tutelage of one-bubble-shy-of-plumb relatives, toddlers pick up inappropriate behaviors — like hitting. Toddlers are by nature egocentric. But they can be taught basic empathy through consistent parental intervention based on a few simple strategies.
Two-and-one-half year old cousins Sydney and Emma were playing with toys. Sydney grabbed for a doll, and Emma intercepted her with a swat to her arm. Sydney dissolved in tears. Fortunately, Emma’s mom was close at hand. She quickly knelt down next to the two girls, keeping them close. In a calm but firm voice, using exaggerated facial expressions to emphasize happy and sad, she talked to the girls.
Emma’s mom did all of the right things to set the stage for teaching both girls a basic lesson in empathy. She approached the toddlers in a calm, nonthreatening manner and got down to their level (making the intervention again nonthreatening and more intimate); she kept her voice on a conversational level with a no-nonsense firmness to it; and she made sure the girls were connecting with the feelings she wanted them to integrate — happy and sad — by demonstrating them on her face.
In the ensuing conversation she communicated simply, in terms toddlers relate to, happy/sad and nice/mean emotions. She also defined unacceptable behavior and introduced appropriate behavior. Toddlers may not yet have the speech skills to respond when asked a question, but they can shake their heads “Yes” or “No.”
Mom said, “Emma. You hit Sydney. That was mean. Look how sad Sydney is. Sydney, show Emma how sad you feel. In our house we should always be nice to each other. Emma, hand Sydney the doll and watch how she gets happy. Sydney, do you feel happy now?” (Sydney shakes her head in the affirmative.) “Emma, giving Sydney the doll was a nice thing to do. Do you feel good inside?” (Emma shakes her head, “Yes.”) “I’m so glad you girls are being nice to each other; that makes ME feel happy!”
Mom ended the guided dialogue by giving both girls a big hug.
The final step in sparking empathy in the cousins is to have them practice handing each other a toy. Ask them how they feel. If they are unresponsive or confused, make it a game: Sydney hands Emma a truck; Mom cheers wildly! Emma hands Sydney a shape-sorting box; Mom claps and stomps with a silly grin on her face!
When first introduced to the concept of empathy, toddlers have the beginnings of what it entails. With guided practice opportunities they embark on understanding 1) it’s a good thing to be nice, 2) seeing others happy is a good thing and 3) they don’t get in trouble when they help other children to be happy. With time, the spark of empathy becomes an entrenched behavior.
Spelling Out Consequences
A child with an entrenched habit of hitting will need extra guidance. Often the spark to motivating him to be more caring is to spell out the consequences of his actions. In simple, brief words, tell him that when he’s nice (having explained to him that in the instance of playing with another child, “nice” means sharing toys and not hitting), he’ll have 10 minutes on a video game (or other special privilege that he really enjoys). But if he is “mean,” he will have time out.
This is your chance, as a parent, to carefully monitor your toddler’s interactions with other children. The more quickly and consistently you intervene when he hits, the more quickly he will establish a new, more desirable behavior: empathy. Oh, and always keep an eye on any Uncle Bills as well!