Learning Empathy Takes Time

We hear so much about the importance of teaching young children empathy and compassion – and we’re often given the message that it’s never too early to start teaching these essential components of life.


So, when does it make sense to emphasize empathy? Let’s consider these questions first: How often do we ask young children, “How would you feel if your friend treated you that way?” How often do we say, “That hurts her feelings when you say that.” How often do we hear children say, “You’re not my friend anymore, and you’re not coming to my birthday party!”


If we think about it – young children respond to questions that ask them to put themselves in someone else’s shoes with a statement about their side, “I had it first!” “I need it!” “It’s mine!” And, after a child says, “You’re not my friend anymore....” the child doesn’t show guilt or remorse or say, “Oh no, I can’t believe I just said that!”


Research shows that young children under the age of 6 have a hard time putting themselves in someone else’s position; this is normal development. Young children don’t have the cognitive ability to think logically, i.e., “if it feels that way to me, it will feel the same way to someone else.” Their brains aren’t (yet) wired to think about another person’s feelings, wants, and needs; this is because young children are developmentally – and by nature – egocentric.


When we understand this developmental and lengthy stage, we become more patient and change our expectations. All the, “How would you feel…” lessons will not change this developmental stage.


Here’s a promise: as the brain matures, by around age 6 or 7, egocentric thinking fades, and children begin to have the cognitive ability to understand another person’s feelings, needs, and wants. That’s the time we want to consistently ask, “How would you feel if your friend treated you that way?”


In the meantime –


*Expect to repeat and repeat your expectations; egocentrism naturally pulls children to say and try to do what they want to do.


*Empathize and validate even though young children have difficulty doing this – “I hear you.” “I know you want to use that toy.” “When your friend is finished using it, you will have a turn.”


*Re-direct, give options, and let children know what they can do, “You can use playdough or color while you’re waiting for a turn.” “Have you seen what this toy can do?”


*Set quick, clear limits – “Grabbing is not allowed.”


*Create a distraction drawer or basket of interesting objects (and keep changing it) so you can turn their attention to another activity, “Let’s see what’s in this basket!”


*Consistently model compassion and empathy for others.


And, while we move through these young years with children, instead of expecting children to put themselves in another person’s shoes, try to view egocentrism with fascination, a sense of humor, and wonder!

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