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Children & Empathy

Watch the video (above) to see how giving tender loving care to young children in pain sets the stage for them to learn about showing kindness to others.

The ability for a preschool child to sympathize and empathize with others is influenced by a child's experiences - how s/he is treated by those around her, world events that s/he may hear about, and by the behaviour s/he observes toward others. A simple definition of empathy is the ability to recognize the emotions that another person is experiencing. Sympathy builds from empathy as a person will be moved to show concern or sadness in response to someone's emotional state. As a result of the recent tragic events in South Asia, preschoolers around the world have been demonstrating in many ways their capacity to empathize and sympathize with others.

As this capacity develops in your child, you may find your child:

  1. Asks more questions about how certain events or experiences make others feel.
  2. Asks you specifically how certain things make you feel.
  3. Begins to make some conclusions about how others might feel in certain situations.
  4. Begins to show both empathic and sympathetic behaviours during pretend play with a doll or playmate, e.g., says "Don't cry baby. Mommy will make it better."
  5. Begins to comfort and express concern for another individual.

Such behaviours are to be celebrated in children. This capacity is fundamental if we want our children to be caring, respectful and generous individuals. While the tsunami has brought to our attention warm hearted examples of preschoolers who have created pictures to raise money for other children, parents need to be aware how this growing ability influences the different areas of a child's immediate world. The ability to empathize and sympathize affects:

  • a child's interactions and reactions to others
  • a child's belief about his /her ability to make a change on someone's behalf
  • a child's network of relationships
  • a child's current personality and later as an adult

Our ability as parents to support the development of this capacity is profound. Parents, who show sensitivity and responsiveness to their infants' and toddlers' needs, have preschoolers who are more secure and pro-social in their relationships with other children. Here are some other parenting behaviours that contribute to building a child's capacity for empathy and sympathy:

  • Talk to children about how their behaviour makes other children feel, e.g., if a child hurts another child. Offer suggestions how to rectify the emotional situation
  • Model caring behaviour toward others so that children can see how it makes other people feel
  • Take time to discuss emotions and feelings associated with problems or situations
  • Take every opportunity to let children know they have the power to make another individual happy by showing them an act of kindness.

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