Parents are concerned about teaching children to consider the feelings of others. Children are told if they strike out or are unkind to someone, “How do you think that made her feel?” Or, “That hurt my feelings.” Sometimes a parent who has been hit or pinched even does the same to her child, with the idea of showing him what it feels like. The idea behind these responses is to help a child identify with what someone else is experiencing.
There has long been an interest in determining how early in life children are capable of empathy – the ability to mentally enter into the feelings of another person. Recently, I saw some videos made by researchers trying to answer this question. Various situations were set up to be videotaped and studied. In the first, an adult is reading a sad story to a child and conveys strong emotions through her voice and facial expressions. Focusing on the child, one can see his own facial expressions begin to register the emotions of the story as conveyed by the reader.
In the second video, a little girl observes an adult sitting on a bench crying. She goes over and tries to comfort her. When that doesn’t work, she tries to get her mother who is sitting nearby to go over and do something to help. The children in both videos were between two and three years of age.
Both of these situations were very familiar. Observing young children in groups, I have found it fascinating to watch their faces while listening to a story. They register not only the emotional content of the story but also the emotions projected by the teacher as she is reading.
Even more impressive is the number of times one can see a child attempt to comfort another child who is distressed. In groups of two year olds it is not unusual to see a child take a toy over to a child who is crying and offer it to her. Sometimes a child will put his or her arm around another child who is upset. There are times when an entire class seems transfixed by a child who is very upset, and the teacher needs to stop all activity to help the children process what is happening.
When one child begins to cry after her parent has left, her reaction almost seems contagious as one child after another begins to cry, too. In such situations, the first child’s crying arouses in the others feelings of loss at separation that are still only just below the surface. The crying of others is not so much identification with the first child as the arousal of similar feelings of their own – a step toward empathy. It is similar to those trained in method acting taught to search for experiences in their own life that they can recreate to provide the emotions needed for the character they will portray.
Going back to the videos, there was a third that was quite provocative. In it a little boy is playing with a workbench toy in which the child hammers pegs through a hole. His mother is helping him by holding the bench steady. As she was instructed to do by the researcher, the mom pretends that the child has hit her finger with the hammer and cries out in pain.
The child goes through several reactions. At first, with laughter he again tries to hit her finger with the hammer. When Mom responds with anger and disapproval, he looks confused and worried and tries unsuccessfully to resume the play. Finally, he kisses her finger and they make up. As strange as it may seem, the child’s first reaction is not at all an uncommon one – one that is often misinterpreted by parents or other adults.
What happens in such a situation is that a child is often unclear about what has happened to produce the response that follows. He repeats the event in order to try to figure it out. In this case the child was not sure whether or not this was part of the play with his Mom. Were they having fun? How did this come about? The kissing her finger seemed clearly an imitation of a set response he had learned. The equivalent of ”Say you are sorry”.
This little scene points up how we can be off the mark in situations like this if we respond only with anger, disapproval, or a formulaic response. We may interpret the child’s behavior as anger or aggression, when in fact it may be a question: “What happened?’. Often what is needed is to clarify with your child what he did that caused the response he got. This is especially true when young children first bite someone. They get such a big reaction that they do it again to try to understand what happened – which of course brings an even bigger response.
There are many kinds of experiences that help children develop empathy and a concern for others. The roots seem clearly to be there from a very young age. As with so many other areas of development, learning plays a big part, and parents play a big part in the teaching that goes with it.