Baby Hints & Tips

Empathy: Growing Children Who Care

Amy provides an insightful piece on child development and empathy. The key message is that parents play a crucial role in modelling this behaviour.

We all know that babies and young children are inherently self-centered. It just goes with the territory of being the parent of toddlers. You become accustomed to the demands for attention and needs to be met. As parents we know these little ones lack the maturity or brain development to think of the needs of anyone else but themselves.

There’s a good reason for that–it is almost impossible for a toddler to consider the needs of others. Most of us know that toddlers (under about 4 years of age) simply don’t have the cognitive or social skills to understand what other people might be feeling or thinking. This task is what psychologists call Theory of Mindthat is the ability to understand or anticipate what another person is feeling or thinking. In other words, it’s the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

As our children develop, however, most of us want them to learn this very important skill. This skill is the basis for empathy, but also is crucial in children learning social skills like sharing and helping others. As Dr. Michele Borba points out in her important new book, Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, these skills do develop naturally in children, but they have to be supported and fostered to fully continue into adulthood. In helping our children develop empathy, we can guide them down a path to better social skills, greater happiness and a more meaningful life.

So how do children learn this important skill of taking another person’s perspective? Researchers have long believed that this ability develops in most around 4 years of age. It’s almost as if something magical happens in the brain between the age of 3 and 4 that helps kids learn this skill. Children’s brains are constantly changing and making new circuits – this makes new thought processes possible.

The role of parents

New research is showing that us that how parents talk to their children may also aid in this perspective-taking ability.

A recent study published in the journal, Child Development, showed that children whose mothers described more about how other people might be feeling or thinking had better perspective-taking skills than those whose mothers did not use this descriptive language. In some respects, this study seems kind of obvious. You would expect that talking to a child about taking another person’s perspective would help them learn this ability. When you really consider this, though, it is pretty amazing. The cognitive skill it takes for a youngster to understand the perspective of another person is pretty complex and to think that just a parent talking to them about this influences how quickly they learn this skill.

The other compelling aspect of the study is the finding that children who had delays in language acquisition also had delays in perspective-taking ability. This provides further evidence that the link between language and perspective-taking ability is a real one. The researchers believe that specific aspects of language acquisition (e.g. learning possessive words) helps children gain the cognitive flexibility needed to take another person’s perspective.

Although this study is interesting, it is worth noting that a child does still have to have a certain degree of cognitive development in order to learn perspective-taking. No matter how much you talk to your 2 year old about how another person is feeling, they most likely are not going to really understand the other person’s perspective. This use of description language, however, will hopefully help your child later when they have the cognitive maturity to grasp the idea of taking another person’s perspective.

Empathy and older children

Research like this helps us understand the development of empathy in young children, but what about older kids and teens? As children grow, it is easy to focus more on their academic or sports achievements and forget about encouraging the growth of empathy and kindness towards others.

In fact, a recent study confirms that whilst parents may value empathy their kids are not really getting the message. This study from Harvard University researchers shows that among American students (middle and high school), the majority (80%) say they value high achievement or happiness over caring for others (20%). While this is important in itself, perhaps more interesting is the fact that the majority of these youth also report feeling that their parents value achievement or happiness over caring. This is despite numerous other research findings showing that parents cite raising caring kids as a top priority. In other words, parents say they want to raise caring kids, but the kids are not getting this message from parents’ daily actions. The authors of the study call this a rhetoric/reality gap.

If you are like me, I find this report more than a little disconcerting. The thought that we could be raising a generation of kids who so overwhelmingly value achievement and happiness over caring for others is first problematic on a moral front. Even if this aspect does not bother everyone, the authors also point out that the result of focusing so intensely on achievement and happiness is ultimately a less happy child. Several studies have found that in communities where students are pressured to perform at high levels, there are higher rates of depression and behaviour problems. Similarly, when children’s achievement or happiness is prioritised over caring for others, they often fail to develop relationship skills that are needed to sustain long-term relationships.

Closing the gap

What can we, as parents, do to close this rhetoric/reality gap? The researchers give several good suggestions and many of them focus on simply setting a good example of caring for others, being respectful and fair.

Other ideas include:

  • Ask your child’s teacher if they are kind to classmates, in addition to how they are performing academically
  • Have children practice expressing gratitude to others in their lives (waitresses, grandparents, etc.)
  • Use news stories about others who are suffering to explain to children how other people face challenges and struggles in other settings or other countries
  • Give children opportunities to reach out to help others in the larger community (e.g., help at a food bank, assist an elderly neighbour)
  • Read books that tell stories about empathy and kindness (these suggestions include ideas for preschool to high school age groups)

As most of us know, we are the most important example of empathy and kindness for our children. We can offer the best guidance by modelling empathy and demanding that our children do the same, even if it makes them unhappy at that moment in time.


About the Author:

Amy Webb, PhD is a scholar turned stay-at-home mom with two young sons. With her blog, The Thoughtful Parent, she brings academic child development and parenting research into the lives of parents in the trenches of child-rearing. She does not claim to be a parenting expert, but rather a translator of academic research into reader-friendly articles.

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