Birth to 2

Rudimentary signs of empathy are apparent at birth. Newborns cry whenthey 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 atthe parent. A 12-month-old may try to feed her mother, but may simplystare 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 thepacifier from which they derive comfort, for example, may not do thetrick for someone else.

One of their first words is "Mine!" because ownership enhances theirnewfound 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 anotherchild.
  • Play a game called "feeling faces," in which you make a face, pointat yourself, and say, "happy," "sad," "angry," or "surprised." Drawsimple pictures with these expressions as well.
  • What's the Goal?

    To help your child become conscious of his own feelings and recognizeemotions in others.

    3 to 4

    Children this age are spending more time with other kids - in day care,at preschool, or on the playground. Through these interactions, theylearn how actions affect others--for example, that sharing can makeothers happy, while refusing to take turns can make them angry or sad.They also start to recognize individual differences in the need forcomfort. Whereas a toddler might have pulled his mother over to comforta crying child in the playground, a preschooler realizes that the boywants his own mommy. Kids often use an egocentric version of theGolden Rule ("He hit me first!") to justify aggression.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Help your child think of others: "Look at Tanya's face. See how sadshe is? Can you think of anything that would help her feel better?"
  • Expand your child's "feelings" vocabulary to include more subtlewords like "disappointed," "hurt," "excited," and "proud."
  • Encourage imaginary play about feelings. "Let's kiss the doll'sboo-boo."
  • What's the Goal?

    To increase a child's consciousness of different kinds of feelings andof herself as an active helper.

    5 to 7

    In the early school years, children need rules in order to work well ingroups. During free play, kids may prefer to play with one best friendand may exclude other children from games because they have troublerelating to more than one playmate at a time.

    As their friendships deepen, children learn that the causes and cures of sad feelings can be complex. Subtle slights, such as sitting withsomeone else at lunch, can hurt a friend's feelings, and simplesolutions {handing her a toy} no longer work.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Suggest that kids put themselves in another's place when figuringout what might make the other child feel better.
  • Explain the unseen reasons why a child or sibling might be upset."Sam's game was cancelled, and now he's disappointed."
  • What's the Goal?

    To teach children that there may be other reasons for feelings thanthose they directly witness.

    8 to 10

    Children this age are learning to take a friend's perspective. They areable to tailor their help to the other person's needs and to manage someof the requirements of true friendship-mutual trust and keepingcommitments, for instance. Individual differences in the capacity forempathy are also becoming evident. Kids who are less empathetic tend tobe more physically aggressive. Those who hurt animals or show no abilityto feel others' pain are at psychological risk and need professionaltreatment.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Make extra efforts to teach peace-making skills to children who usebullying behavior.
  • Show your child how to be a good winner. Practice words to us tomake the loser feel better-e.g. "Good game! Maybe you'll win next time."
  • Make the Golden Rule concrete. For example, if your child makes funof a classmate, say, "How would you feel if you overheard her sayingsomething like that about you?"
  • What's the Goal?

    To show kids how to put empathy in practice in everyday situations withfriends.

    11 to 13

    As children enter adolescence, their world continues to expand throughexposure to books, school subjects, movies, and TV. They start toempathize with people who are suffering, even those they have never met. Their reactions may be intense, causing them to be greatly troubled by news accounts of war or crime. Closer to home, though, peer pressure may cause them to behave in hurtful ways to kids their age.