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Why Toddlers Lose Their Compassion And How You Can Get It Back

Once your 18-month-old would do anything for you. They picked up things when you asked. They brought you beer when you were thirsty — and not that crap your brother-in-law brought over. You used to be their giant, possibly bearded, god Then right around 2-and-a-half, 3-year-old mark they kind of turned into dicks. What is going on in their heads?

According to Dr. James Doty, trained neurosurgeon and Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (or CCCARE) at Stanford University School of Medicine and author of Into the Magic Shop — this is typical behavior. “Kids between 18 and 24 months have this innate sense of fairness or the desire to help. It starts to fade when there’s more social interaction. It may be that now, they’re in an environment where they see other people either not behaving in this fashion or they start learning how to be more selfish.” You knew it — it’s society’s fault!

At CCARE, Dr. Doty is at the forefront of how the head is connected to the heart, and he has some ideas on how to help your kid keep their sense of understanding, compassion, and fairness. Three steps: Promote emotional intelligence, model it, and let them know it’s ok to fail (except at being their parent).

Why You Should Practice Compassion With Kids Flickr / Carsten Ten Brink

Kids Absorb More Than Your Realize
All that sweetness and light you’re remembering about your kid? “It’s not that this goes completely away,” says Dr. Doty, “but then they also develop all the ability to mirror others’ behavior, to interpret other people’s behavior, and also to recognize that they have needs, and they have a desire to fill those needs.”

It sounds cynical, but the more that kids learn that the world doesn’t always reward kindness, the more they think like you think: “F–k it, what’s in it for me?” Every time they see you cut someone off driving to school or not holding a door for a pregnant lady (oh yeah, you saw her), they’re taking that in. They learn, like a tiny Gordon Gecko, that acting in their own self-interest gets them what they want.

Blame The Amygdala
There’s this part of your brain called the amygdala — it’s the thing that regulates self-control. When you’re being chased by a bear, Revenant-style, it tells you whether to fight or flee (or accept an Oscar). When your kids are young, this part of the brain is underdeveloped, so they don’t have what us big kids like to call self-control. (And you thought that tantrum came from nowhere). In those who haven’t had proper nurturing, that switch stays stuck in the “on” position.

When that happens, hormones like norepinephrine, epinephrine, and cortisol, which were useful thousands of years ago when your ancestors were being chased by big things with sharp teeth, flood the brain. But it turns out, in the 21st Century, this can have a significant negative impact on health and wellness. Basically, when kids are in this state, it doesn’t allow them to be calm, think through problems, and see a whole bunch of different solutions. They are just trying to survive.

They Won’t Be Dicks Forever
Fortunately, brains get better at dealing with issues. Part of it is your influence and being a good role model. Most of it is them. “Our brains don’t mature in terms of executive function until we’re 19 or 20,” says Dr. Doty. “Or even into our mid-20s. What we are learning from a variety of programs that promote meditation or emotional intelligence in the classroom, is that children in the 5, 6, or 7-year-old age group have the ability to understand empathy and the power of compassion.”

Flickr / UC Irvine

And while children are naturally immature, they’re not unreachable. Researchers are finding that when kids are introduced to programs that promote mindfulness, academic attendance, attention, and performance all go up.

Winning Isn’t Everything, And Neither Is Losing
“We have created a generation of children who are not empathetic,” says Doty, pointing the finger in your general direction. “It’s promoted that everybody should win, and that even if you came in third, you’re a winner. In real life, of course, life doesn’t work that way.”

And while he sees this lack of letting kids work hard, fail, and feel good about being number 2 as a serious problem, the inverse is also true. Parents who don’t care about making, in Trump’s words, “the losers” feel good and put more pressure on their kids to be real winners. “You see parents who are encouraging negative behaviors, encouraging hyper-competitiveness, encouraging this aspect of win at any cost,” he says. “When a child is defined, not by love, nurturing, and caring, their parents are saying, ‘Life is one of competition and I will only give you love if you win,'” Maybe there is something to making them wait for that second cookie.

You used to be their giant, possibly bearded, god Then right around 2-and-a-half, 3-year-old mark they kind of turned into dicks.

Love Early, Love Often
Have you hugged your kid today? (Of course you have, you’re reading a parenting site.) But for those children don’t get enough love in the home, science knows their ability to empathize suffers. “It’s absolutely critical at a young age to demonstrate nurturing and bonding behavior,” says Dr. Doty.” When a child does not receive that they have a chronic difficulty in developing relationships on their own. They have no modeling behavior and because of the fact that they always have this fear of abandonment or not being cared for.”

Not Admitting Mistakes Is A Mistake
One of the big takeaways that Dr. Doty has learned both in his time being a dad and heading up CCARE, is the more you own up to your mistakes, the less your kids feel a pressure to be perfect. Sure, you want them to believe that you know all (and more importantly, see all), but by injecting a little humility, it makes them more apt to say, “I don’t know,” instead of be a know-it-all.

Flickr / Aaron Muderick

He Doesn’t Pressure His Kids, And Neither Should you
It used to be that parents said they wanted a doctor or lawyer in the family. But at least according to this doctor, it’s not important his son follow in his footsteps. “I have no interest in whether my child goes to Harvard or Stanford, or even goes to college,” says Dr. Doty. “That’s completely irrelevant to me. My job is to give him the possibilities that coincide with his potential — and then let him do his thing. I have a very smart 12-year-old, but he’s interested in farming. If he becomes a farmer, more power to him.”

Despite Your Parenting, It Will All Work Out
Even if you think that you’re doing everything right (or everything wrong), Dr. Doty says that you can only influence so much. “From my own life experience, with a father who was an alcoholic and a mother who was an invalid, I had a lot of anger and hostility about their failings as parents. It served me well when I recognized their own struggles.” And if you’re still fretting about your kid walking the compassionate path, he says, “If you’re a kind person, generally speaking, I would suggest that almost everything else works out.”