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How To Build Empathy In Your Fundamentally Selfish Toddler

flickr / GollyGforce

We don’t live in a world built on empathy. That’s why refugees, wars, homelessness, and inequality exist. It’s also why there are stupid jerks that intentionally cut you off in traffic, causing you to say things in front of your kid that would make George Carlin blush.


Face it, empathy is tough. If it wasn’t, everybody would be doing it (which would be awesome). But just because it’s tough doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t get your kid working on it now. After all, if they wind up being one less non-empathetic driver on the road (or in a flying car?) isn’t it really worth it? Yes. Yes, is the answer.

Babies Are Wired For Empathy

Here’s something that might trip you out: when your kid was a baby, they were wired for empathy. Sure, you never saw them giving their dry diaper to another kid in an extreme act of 2-month-old selflessness. But that’s just because that would be literally impossible.

Still, researchers believe that they have discovered that an innate sense of empathy is displayed in babies. In one study, researchers found that when newborns were played recordings of other newborns crying, they would display a stress response. More than that, the stress response would be less when they were played recordings of their own cries. But that makes sense because no one likes to hear themselves cry. It’s so embarrassing.

Toddlers Are Wired To Not Give Any Shits

Somewhere around 2-years-old your toddler might appear to lose any empathy they once had. Suddenly they turn into real jerks. And that’s fine to say if it’s true. Go ahead. It will make you feel better. (You know, but not to their face.)

It’s not their fault. Their brain is changing. This is around the time a structure in their noggin called the amygdala starts working its terrible magic. This brain organ is meant to control flight or fight responses. These are great if you’re about to be mauled by a saber-tooth tiger. They are less great if you’re pissed your toast is more brown than you wanted.

Which is all to say, you have your work cut out for you. But studies show they will respond to techniques that teach empathy and emotional intelligence while their amygdala mellows around 20. Yeah. 20-years-old.

Here’s what you’re gonna do.

Teach Them How To Read Emotions

You can do this through flash cards, books, or by miming emotions (if you’re into face paint and silence). If they can’t verbally name them yet, go ahead and help. Because you can’t understand and empathize with someone’s emotions if you don’t know what they are.

Model It In The House

If your partner pisses you off, and you throw yourself on the floor and wail, you’re teaching the wrong thing. You also may want to seek help.

Your kid will benefit from being able to see you talk through household problems in an empathetic way. To wit:  “We still love each other. Momma was just frustrated that poppa left a dish in the sink again. And poppa can understand that makes her feel frustrated. Even though, you know, it’s just a dish, Marge! I mean … We still love each other”

Model It Outside The House

It’s even harder sometimes to exhibit emotional control and empathy outside of the house. So when that dude does cut you off in traffic, talk through that too: “That son of a … I mean, That guy must really be having a bad day. He might need to get somewhere quickly. Can you imagine how that must feel?” Just leave out the part that you can imagine how it would feel to punch him in his stupid face.

Talk About Big Scary Stuff

This isn’t to say that you’re proactively showing them pictures of the horrors of Aleppo. Because that’s too much for anyone right now. But if something does go down locally, or they happen to glimpse a scary story on the local news, it’s totally appropriate to talk to them about it. Your kid can truly benefit from trying to understand how it would feel if a family lost their belongings in a house fire. Just balance it by assuring them that you’re doing everything to keep them safe.

Make Them Feel Helpful

A sense of compassion and empathy can be developed by making your kid feel helpful. It’s something that’s called the helper high. This is awesome for toddlers who normally want to be involved and helpful.

This help can totally be chores around the house. But it can also be accompanying you when you volunteer for causes close to your heart. That also allows for you to start an empathetic conversation about what it must feel like to have less than others. And then why it should be a priority to help.

Get It In The School

There are plenty of school curricula that are built to help students learn empathy, compassion and emotional intelligence. If they’re not in your school, go talk to your PTA. Take the reigns. Do some research and make it happen, bro. Not just for your kid. But for society as a whole. Look at that! You’re a hero!

Praise Right

When your kid does display empathy, make sure you let them know you caught it and you appreciate it. But don’t just tell them that you think they’re a good kid. Praise the process it took to reach their compassionate and empathetic conclusion. And don’t over do it. After all, empathy should be the norm and not the exception.