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At What Age Does a Child Start to Learn Empathy?

At What Age Does a Child Start to Learn Empathy?

We recently had the pleasure of teaming up with Ileen Henderson from the Bright Horizons Foundation for Children for our webinar Sparking Empathy in Your Child. The seminar generated a lot of discussion and many great questions from parents like you. As part of a three part series, we invited Ileen to answer some of those questions. In the first post, Ileen answered a question about how parents can help teach young children about giving back. Today, in our second post of the series, she answers a question just how early a child can show empathy and the role that a parent plays in modeling empathy:

How can I start building empathy at a very young age (and how young?)?

Empathy is being able to put yourself into another person’s place and feel what their feelings might be. It is an ability that evolves developmentally from a child’s earliest interactions with the world. When a three month old engages with a parent in the basic interaction of expressing a need and evoking a reaction from another, that baby is learning the basics of how to be human. This growing skill at understanding the serve and response ‘dance’ between child and caregiver is what is at the basis of communication and language development

As a parent the more you are able to ‘teach’ your child the nuances, the verbal and nonverbal cues that lie at the heart of understanding others responses to your cues, the stronger foundation you are laying for empathy. When your 3-month-old baby sends you communication cues, starting with a cry for physical needs to be met, your attention, your response and your ability to stretch that learning by extending the interaction, teaches your baby about noticing other’s cues and which responses gain the desired result. What does that look like? Baby coos, daddy coos back, baby reaches out, daddy reaches out to touch, baby babbles, daddy babbles back. This is a first conversation that continues throughout the first four years and beyond, and the more sophisticated that network of serve and response becomes, the more able your growing child will be to picking up the cues of others, and the more rewarded they feel by the interaction. This early sensitivity to your infant’s subtle messaging, requires your ability to put yourself in your baby’s place, ‘read’ her cues, respond and therefore build her sense of safety and stretch and reinforce her own empathy roots. 

Because you have helped your child to understand your responses and to learn about her own responses, the earliest indications of conscience begin to form. If your baby knows your emotional language and then sees you in distress, this will cue the baby to feel sadness for you, as they fine tune their ability to read and react appropriately to the cues of others.

That is why at around 18 months you will see a child begin to try to soothe another person in distress and then at two, to be able to verbally articulate what that other person seems to feel and at three and four to better understand the nuance of others emotional messages. Feeling pleasure at comforting another by using the learned skills from infancy, builds into a set of sophisticated emotional tools that a child can use throughout their lives. Adding to this by helping a child to recognize and name subtle emotions, understand the differences between them and identify them in her and others, reinforces this empathy toolkit. For instance, Daddy feels sad, can evolve to daddy feels frustrated which requires a more sophisticated response. The more emotional language your child has gathered, the better able they are to become a person with empathy for others.

Modeling empathy in your interactions and pointing them out in others, using language to describe what you see and feel and discussing your response with your child provides many teachable moments throughout their growth and development. As your child grows, intentionally exposing them to differences in people’s cultural cues will expand their ability to extend this empathetic response to the people they meet and read or hear about throughout their lives.

Ileen Henderson is the national director of Bright Spaces, part of the Bright Horizons Foundation for Children. She has been a key Bright Spaces staff member since October 2011 and a volunteer leader since 2002, when she served as project leader for the 20-site Philadelphia Bright Space Project. She is also the creator and CEO of My Baby’s First Teacher, a parenting program for homeless mothers.
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