Rudimentary signs of empathy are apparent at birth. Newborns cry when they hear another infant crying, and very young babies imitate and react to the facial expressions of others. Though these actions are reflexive, not conscious, they show that the brain is primed to respond to other humans. Parents are essential to this process. Every time a parent responds lovingly to an infant's needs, feeding or soothing him, new neural connections are made, which associate good feelings with parental care and form the basis of the ability to love and empathize.

A toddler's first demonstrations of reciprocity are often directed at the parent. A 12-month-old may try to feed her mother, but may simply stare at a child who is crying. By 2, children often try to comfort kids as well, for example, by offering their doll to an upset child. What they don't yet realize is that people's needs differ and that the pacifier from which they derive comfort, for example, may not do the trick for someone else.

One of their first words is "Mine!" because ownership enhances their newfound sense of self. Although the idea of sharing can be introduced, kids are unable to act on it for another year or so.

What Can Parents Do?

  • Praise your child when he shows concern for or comforts another child.
  • Play a game called "feeling faces," in which you make a face, point at yourself, and say, "happy," "sad," "angry," or "surprised." Draw simple pictures with these expressions as well.
  • What's the Goal?
    To help your child become conscious of his own feelings and recognize emotions in others.

    Activities For Younger Children
    Empathy Collage
     Location: Table or desk
     Materials: Old magazines, heavy paper, glue, scissors, pens
     Number of people: Two or more
     Description: Help your children make "empathy collages." First, look through magazines and identify together how people in the photographs are feeling. Then cut the pictures out and glue them on heavy paper. Below each photo, help your child write the feeling displayed. Afterwards, have everyone talk about a time they experienced one of the feelings shown.


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