How early in life are children capable of empathy – the ability to identify with the feelings of another person? Parents are often faced with this question when wanting to correct a child’s hurtful behavior to another. How do you think that made her feel? How would you feel if someone did that to you? Questions often asked when trying to correct a child’s behavior.
Child development researchers have been interested in this question and have made videos of various situations in order to study children’s behavior. In one video, a little girl between two and three years of age 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.
Observing groups of two-year-old children 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 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.
In still another video, a little boy is playing with a workbench toy hammering pegs through a hole. His mother helps by holding the bench steady. As instructed by the researcher, the mom pretends that the child has hit her finger with the hammer and cries out in pain. The child reacts first with laughter and 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. The child’s first reaction is not at all an uncommon one – one that is often misinterpreted by adults.
In such a situation a child is often unclear about what actually has happened. 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? Kissing her finger clearly seemed 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 if we respond only with disapproval. 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. Children also need help in identifying their own feelings as well as those of others.
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.