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Reflections: Empathy

by Ed Ostrom

Empathy is getting under the skin of a hurting person and seeking to understand the circumstances and the situations that he or she is facing. It is attempting to feel what the hurting person is feeling.

Empathy is much more than sympathy. Sympathy is "feeling sorry" for a person, while empathy is "feeling with" a person. Sympathy is often an attitude of self righteousness where the one feeling sorry often feels they are better than the person they feel sorry for.

Sympathy has a way of belittling the person one seeks to help. Empathy on the other hand has a quality of building people up that we are attempting to help. It does not come from an attitude of self righteousness, nor feeling better or superior to, but rather it is sincere, and genuine and has a sense of equality about it. An empathetic person seeks to understand others, I grew up on the Canadian Prairies.

In my early years I has much association with First nations People. In my childhood I often heard a pithy saying from Cree Elders. They said " Great Spirit help me not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins."

Truly this is empathy. May we like these elders seek to live in empathy.

In my humble opinion one of the greatest tools in the toolbox of anyone in a helping profession is the tool of empathy. One of the best ways we can help a hurting person is to seek to empathize with them. We need to seek to understand what they are going through and feel what they are feeling.

As we seek to understand them and hear what they are saying and feel what they are feeling, we will commune heart to heart with them, and we will be able to truly help them.

Each day I pray: "Lord make me an empathetic listener!" The Lord answers me for I have found that He modeled to me empathy. Hebrews 4:14-16 promises " Seeing then we have a Great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.

For we do not have a High Priest who cannot empathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the Throne of Grace that we may obtain mercy and find help in time of need." Jesus showed what empathy is. I ask Him for empathy and He gives it to me. Lord help me to understand others. Make me empathetic I pray. Thank you Lord!

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Teaching a child empathy
by Victoria Rose Perkins
 

The title of this article "Teaching a child empathy" indicates children do need to be taught how to be empathetic. The true definition of empathy is, "your pain in my heart". It is the ability to put yourself into another person's inner world and feel their anguish. An infant is not able to do this yet, but young children over a year old can begin to learn to show empathy.

It isn't something we are automatically born knowing how to do and can express right away, no more than we are born knowing how to immediately take care of our own needs. The potential is there, however being empathetic is a learned, gradual process.

Lessons springing from the heart, if you will, primarily taught by example.

Infants are incapable of knowing what empathy is and that is because they are quite naturally concerned with hunger and warmth and little else. The precious little bundles! The parents feel empathy every time that helpless infant signals by crying "I need something".

The loving parents are attuned to the baby's needs and therefore are motivated with love to show empathy by attending to the baby's need despite being tired or hungry themselves. When a child's needs are met, this is the first lesson they can begin to be taught in empathy.

Very young children can begin to learn what true empathy is when they first learn to share a toy. Teaching them to share is teaching them to care.

Later, this will progress into the happiness they will feel when they realize they have the ability to make another person smile. They will feel joy which makes them feel good about themselves.

As they mature and their outer world expands there are many opportunities to cement further the quality of being empathetic. Owning and caring for a pet. Learning to share their toys with other children. As they mature, volunteering at homeless shelters, getting involved with acts of charity through school or a church are fine ways to help a child learn empathy.

Helping an elderly neighbor. Having a listening ear for their friends. All these are ways to help a child learn to be empathetic and gain the inner happiness that comes as a result of being a kind and understanding person.

This wonderful loving attribute, if shown to one another as family members in the child's home, will become a natural and loving part of growing up with an empathetic heart toward the pain of others. They will have the ability and happiness to know "I can help ease someone's pain".

Like all great qualities, empathy must be shown as well as given. Children who are shown empathy freely will become empathetic adults. Its naturally and happily contagious!

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The Visible Empathy of Infants and Toddlers

Valerie Quann and Carol Anne Wien

Katherine, eight months old, sits on the carpet in the middle of a bustling child care room. She has been mesmerized by a pop-up toy but glances up during her play and seems frightened by the commotion around her. Brandon, 19 months old, who sits nearby, notices her change in mood. Katherine begins to cry. Brandon toddles toward her and gently leans over to whisper in her ear. He babbles to her in an unmistakable “motherese” tone, seeming to convey “Don’t worry” while also gently patting her hand. He comforts her in the same way the teachers comfort the children.

Do infants and toddlers really show empathy? What does it look like? Can empathy be documented in very young children who have limited language skills? Can educators discern any factors that enable empathy to develop in infants and toddlers? The purpose of this article is to invite conversation between practitioners, teacher educators, and scholars on empathy in young children. We write the article as teacher educators whose work involves training early childhood educators and elementary teachers.

We describe what Quann observed in a multiage setting, what we make of these observations grounded in qualitative research, and our reflections. We do not try to tell others what to do, but rather we ask, What do you think about the possibility of the very young in your setting showing empathy? Do other practitioners see anything like these episodes? What do empathy researchers think about what we are seeing?

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The setting

Quann had worked in an urban child care environment in which 58 children from three months to six years of age are organized into four classrooms, one of which is multiage. The program, a lab school in a university setting, served an ethnically diverse population with many families from professional backgrounds.

In her work, Quann had noticed that very young children seemed fine-tuned to one another’s feelings and able to put themselves in the position of others long before researchers in moral reasoning expect to observe empathy (Piaget [1932] 1965; Kohlberg 1969, 1984; Kohlberg, Levine, & Hewer 1983; Damon 1988).

Definitions of empathy

We define empathy in very young children as the capacity to observe the feelings of another and to respond with care and concern for that other, noting Hendrick’s definition of empathy as “kindness toward another when there is a perceived or real sadness about that person.

This [showing kindness] is a difficult task because young children are essentially centered on themselves and have great difficulty grasping how others feel” (1998, 223). We argue, in contrast, that teachers do see remarkable incidents of empathy among very young children. Noddings (1984, 30) offers the notion of empathy as “feeling with” the other; we agree that there is a mutuality of feeling offered by one person to another.

We acknowledge the psychological literature on empathy, altruism, and prosocial development (Eisenberg 1982, 1986, 1992; Hoffman 1982, 2000; Damon 1988; Sroufe 1996; Braten 1998; Denham 1998) and offer our teacher research as a counterpoint that shows what practitioners observe and experience.

In doing so, we recall Malaguzzi describing how Reggio educators believe that learning about children could happen first and foremost from observing children themselves: “Indeed, education without research or innovation is education without interest” (Malaguzzi 1998, 73). We want to ask what others think about what we have found.

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Pedagogical documentation

Pedagogical documentation is a form of teacher research inspired by the educators of Reggio Emilia. It uses photographs of children at work, samples of their efforts, and text - children’s conversations, teachers’ thoughts - to show to those outside of classrooms the intriguing events occurring inside classrooms for young children (Dahlberg, Moss, & Pence 1999; Giudici, Rinaldi, & Krechevsky 2001; Cadwell 2003).

We felt that by documenting these events for those outside classroom life we could show the empathy of infants and toddlers. These are episodes so evanescent that their duration is a matter of seconds or minutes; they are events that can be missed altogether if adults are not alert to them.

At the lab school where she had worked, Quann observed the infant/toddler classroom (8 children, ages six months to two-and-a-half years old) and the multiage group (13 children, ages two-and-a-half to four years old), which joined together for substantial parts of the day on nine occasions over 10 weeks.

Each observation lasted about three hours. Watching for episodes of empathy, she photographed and took careful notes when discerning an event that seemed to fit our definition. She documented 13 episodes, from a brief flashing moment to an extended period of several minutes. Quann made seven sets of documentation panels with photographs and descriptions to share with the classroom teachers in a collaborative reflection on what was occurring. Here is what she found.

Three forms of empathy

We saw three types of empathy in the pedagogical documentation. Proximal empathy occurs when a child shows concerned care for a distressed classmate who is close by, though not having been involved in the classmate’s upset. Altruistic empathy occurs when a child offers concerned care in response to another child’s suffering by noticing it from afar. Self-corrective empathy occurs when a child offers concerned care in response to his or her own actions causing distress to another.

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Proximal empathy

In a show of proximal empathy a child responds with care and concern to a nearby child who is hurt. In Quann’s observations, this usually occurred when two children were playing in a learning center together. The responding child did not cause nor have anything to do with the other child’s being hurt or upset, but was nearby and decided to help in his or her own way, usually with kind words or touching. The following is an example of proximal empathy.

The difficulty of scissors. Destiny (23 months) and Pratha (20 months) play in the creative area, attempting to make scissors cut paper. Destiny, who has not had much experience using scissors, struggles to hold them. As she struggles, her index finger bends backward and she begins to cry. Pratha says, “Ouch,” and touches Destiny’s hand. Pratha then looks up, presumably for a teacher. Teacher Leona comes over with ice and comforts Destiny. Pratha stands nearby with a concerned look on her face.

In proximal empathy, a child becomes aware of and responds to another child’s suffering because they are close by. In this instance, Pratha seems to “feel with” Destiny, acknowledging her hurt and wanting her to feel better.

It seems that some children become upset when other children are visibly upset. Our inference is that even infants and toddlers “catch” the feeling of distress and respond, perhaps because of their relationship with the upset child, perhaps out of shared knowledge of what it feels like to be upset, or perhaps out of a global emotional tone for the situation. It is as if the child who witnesses the hurt wants to communicate her acknowledgment of the hurt.

Ice will make it better. Wyatt (two-and-a-half years) has fallen on the carpet, and it quickly becomes clear that he is injured. A teacher comforts him. Amanda (17 months) goes to the small fridge in the room and retrieves an ice pack. She brings it over to Wyatt. Her face says, “There,” as she puts the ice beside him and “All better now” as she turns and walks away. She is smiling.

Many children in this classroom attempt to show care for their upset peers by bringing them ice. Perhaps the children remember that when they were hurt, the teachers brought them ice and then they felt better. Once, a child brought another child ice when he was crying due to morning separation from his parent. The upset child accepted the ice and, very soon after, stopped crying. In this environment, it was as if ice represents a gift of caring, of compassion: to be offered ice is to be healed.

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Altruistic empathy

In altruistic empathy, a child notices distress from much further away, when involved in a different activity that might preclude attention to the distress of another. In altruistic empathy, there seems to be attunement to the distress of others and a concerted desire to assuage it.

Offering objects as comfort. Matthew (22 months) is out of sorts today, crying at the gate at the classroom door, wanting to leave (presumably to go after his mother, who left about an hour earlier). Two teachers have tried to comfort and distract him, but he remains upset. Amanda (17 months) brings him several trains; everyone knows they are his favorite toy. He throws them over the gate. One teacher successfully redirects him to a puzzle. Later, the other teacher picks up the trains and returns them to their bin.

Amanda peers into the bins. She looks around the room, and when she sees Matthew, her face lights up. She brings the trains over and silently puts them on the table beside him. Colin (17 months) walks by the table, picks up the trains, and walks away. Matthew cries out and begins to chase Colin. He moves to a corner, crying loudly, and throws several toys. He has a large bell in his hand as Amanda approaches with another train she has found; she offers it to him. He puts the bell down, takes the train, and sits on the carpet, holding it. Amanda returns to reading books with Emma and a student teacher. Matthew puts down the train, goes to a bookshelf, picks out a book, and joins them. He is much happier for the rest of the morning.

As the teachers notice when reviewing the documentation panel with Quann, Amanda’s solution is more fine-tuned than their own: she “knows” exactly what will please Matthew - his favorite toy. When Colin walks off with her offer of comfort, Matthew becomes enraged and loses all control.

Amanda hangs in, finding another train and offering it once again. It is as if she assures Matthew that he will be comforted, as if she has a sort of persistence in seeing him through his upset. We might infer that while the teachers clearly make many different attempts to console this child, a young child in their midst joins them and also makes repeated attempts. Altruistic empathy is kindness in which a child interrupts her own activity and goes out of her way to be kind.

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Extended altruistic empathy

A single child reacted in a thoughtful and striking manner toward another’s hurt when a roomful of other children did not notice the problem. Amanda displayed empathy for other children’s suffering when she was not only not involved in the cause but was often busy playing in another part of the room. If she noticed that another child “needed care” of some kind, she would often leave what she was doing to go to that child and offer help.

The symbiotic relationship between helping and being helped. Wyatt sits in a low, wheeled cart for mobility after he has broken his leg. Wyatt tries to maneuver around the room, but his cart gets stuck on the leg of the sand table. Amanda is on the other side of the room reading a book. She glances up and notices Wyatt gesturing and making sounds. She leaves her book on the carpet and walks over to Wyatt. She leans over and looks in his eyes. It looks like she is saying, “Don’t worry, we’ll figure this out.” Wyatt smiles at her.

Amanda tries to move the cart back and forth but cannot make it move. She tries to push the book shelf on the other side of the cart, but it is too heavy. Then she tries to push the sand table aside and is successful. Wyatt points to the bookshelf and Amanda moves his cart in that direction. Wyatt uses his hands to move the wheels on his chair so Amanda needs to help him only minimally. Together the children move to the bookshelf.

Amanda waits while Wyatt searches the shelf. He chooses Goodnight Moon but cannot quite reach it. Amanda waits, as if to see if he can reach it. When she realizes that he cannot, she moves the book closer to him so that he can grasp it on his own. Wyatt takes the book but looks distressed when he realizes that he cannot move his wheels with the book in his hand. He looks at Amanda and she accepts the book from him. Wyatt points to the carpet area, indicating that he would like to go there. Amanda holds the book in her hand and pushes Wyatt to the carpet area. She smiles and goes back to her spot on the carpet.

Amanda is a mere 17 months old. She shows what we consider a deep sense of empathy, in that she seems to put herself in the place of others, to grasp their needs, even when she is not directly involved in the situation. In the midst of another activity, she spots others in need. As we watch her reactions while helping, her smiles and appearance of satisfaction, we infer helping others in need is deeply satisfying to her.

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Self-corrective empathy

Self-corrective empathy occurs when a child is the cause of another child’s hurt feelings or injury. In response to the resulting suffering, the perpetrator shows empathy toward the hurt child. The following example shows how this works.

Empathy for hurt feelings.Michael, a pre-schooler, is putting spools on a string to make a necklace. He is quietly working alone when Amanda approaches and starts to play with the end of his string. With her other hand, she reaches for a red wooden ring. Michael yells, “No! Go away.” He pulls the string out of Amanda’s hands.

Amanda’s face crumples, as though she might cry, yet she still tries to grab the string. Michael then puts some beads near her and says, “Here, these are for you.” They work silently, with Amanda watching Michael string his spools onto the string as she does the same. He glances over at her and notices her watching him. He smiles and says, “Look, you’re doing it.”

Michael first reacts harshly, protecting his activity from interference. When he sees Amanda start to cry, he stops and seems to rethink his reaction. In fact, he changes his response from a harsh rejection to an offer of material that enables Amanda to join his activity. We believe that this is a sophisticated empathic behavior.

Michael reacts egocentrically initially, protecting something he sees as his. Yet, following Amanda’s hurt, nonverbal reaction, he invites her into his activity. Essentially, he switches his mind-set from exclusion to inclusion. We think this a profoundly moving response, for even in adulthood it is difficult to change one’s behavior midstream to be more tolerant, more inclusive.

Hoffman (2000) discusses empathy-based guilt, a painful feeling of loss of esteem for oneself, “usually accompanied by a sense of urgency, tension, and regret that results from empathic feeling for someone in distress, combined with awareness of being the cause of that distress” (p. 114).

We are not sure we want to infer that children so young are reacting out of guilt: what is clear is the successful switch in response in the midst of emotion. We find this switch powerful, because it suggests that positive care for others is strong enough to stop one’s negative reaction to another person.

Hoffman noted in his research that in their second year, children show “more aggression and more pleasure in the victim’s distress when they caused the other’s distress than when they witnessed it....In any case, causing another’s distress is more likely to require adult intervention than witnessing another’s distress” (2000, 136).

Michael’s reaction is even more surprising, given Hoffman’s suggestion that episodes such as this generally require adult intervention. Michael, a preschooler, was able to regulate his own behavior and did not require adult intervention. We consider his response a highly sophisticated communication.

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Discussion and reflections

When Quann discussed these episodes with the classroom teachers, Kathleen and Leona, the teachers felt that Amanda’s behavior was altruistic - in their view, offered without a notion of gain for herself. Kathleen said, “[Amanda] seems to be completely empathic in an altruistic sense....

She’s not trying to make up for something she’s done or make it better when she’s hurt somebody.”

Damon (1988) argues:

Newborns have the capacity for some purely affective empathic responses. These early feelings become the emotional cornerstone of pro-social behavior. But for effective moral action, the child must learn to identify a wide range of emotional states in others. Further, the child must acquire the ability to anticipate what kinds of action will improve the emotional state of the other. (p. 15)

What is so striking about Amanda’s day-to-day behavior is that she does seem to have what Damon calls effective moral action. Amanda displayed this knowledge especially well in the episode with Wyatt and his cart. She seemed to know intuitively that Wyatt needed only a small bit of help to meet his needs. Some adults might have taken over, pushing him where he needed to go and retrieving the book for him.

But Amanda offered him scaffolded support; she moved the book over just so far so that Wyatt could reach it. She allowed him to push his cart with his hands on the wheels, and she pushed only that small amount extra that enabled him to be successful. Her actions imply that she understood the wide range of emotional states that Damon discusses: she seems to understand Wyatt’s need to participate and also the limits of his ability to do so.

It is legitimate to ask whether Amanda is too empathic, interrupting her own activity to offer care to others. Quann struggled with this, thinking she didn’t want Amanda to stop being empathic, yet didn’t want her needs to be forgotten either. Hoffman (2000) argues that it can be typical in later schooling for girls who are very agreeable to have their needs overlooked for others who seem needier.

Wien argues that Amanda’s successful acts to restore positive emotion in others do in fact satisfy a need in her - perhaps for harmony of relations or for restoring others to equanimity - and that her success supports her sense of personal power and efficacy, as seen by her smiles, even though she is not yet 20 months old. Batson and Shaw (1991) would seem to agree with Wien’s interpretations of these events:

Altruism and egoism...have much in common. Each refers to goal-directed motivation; each is concerned with the ultimate goal of this motivation; and for each, the ultimate goal is increasing someone’s welfare. These common features provide the context for highlighting the crucial difference: Whose welfare is the ultimate goal - another person’s or one’s own? (p. 108)

How is empathy generated? What conditions encourage empathy for others? The explanation for the empathy shown by the children in this child care setting, we believe, is the high quality of adult-child relationships and interactions modeled by the teachers and adult family members. This school holds relationships at the heart of its program.

Forming and sustaining positive relationships is the first priority, as teachers engage children in meaningful ways and form authentic, lasting relationships with families. Leona said, “You have to work hard at a real relationship with the family. If there are problems, we work at them. Hard. We respect differences in parenting styles. You could be working with this family for five years. It’s a real relationship and we need to treat it like that.”

Eisenberg (1992) comments, “It seems obvious that teachers and peers must influence children’s pro-social development. Once children enter school, they spend a large amount of time with teachers and friends” (p. 112). In a child care setting, children can spend up to 10 hours a day together. This is bound to affect their behavior in terms of learning from what they see and experience.

The teachers in this room said they strongly believed in using appropriate, positive language. Kathleen also felt that the children learned much through modeling. Leona agreed that the children saw others acting and reacting in a particular way and then learned from that observation. Leona helped children negotiate their boundaries by encouraging them to verbalize their feelings through language.

Both teachers would guide less verbal children by providing them with appropriate language choices, saying such things as, “You are crying. That looks like it really hurt when you were pushed. What could you say to Aidan?” If the child was not verbal, the teacher would continue, “You could try saying ‘Stop’ or ‘That hurts’.”

The teachers also recognized the importance of nonverbal communication. They taught the children American Sign Language signs for stop, help, and more, among other needs, to enhance their independence and to help them feel more self-control during peer interactions.

In addition, surrounding the teachers’ positive language was an aura of emotional regard for every participant in the setting - children, teachers, and families. This aura of emotional support included body language, voice tone and inflection, and a stance of caring that becomes infectious and is caught by others in the setting.

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Implications for educators and administrators

We believe the relationship between teachers and children is the most important factor influencing how children act within any type of early learning center.

Without the high-quality relationships that Quann observed, we suspect little empathy would have occurred in this setting. What we saw suggests three ways in particular that teachers and administrators might encourage children to be empathic.

Create a culture of caring

The teachers Quann observed always spoke in an authentic way, using natural language in a conversational manner, with respect for each child, engaging the children and responding to their needs.

When children observe teachers and older children behaving in this way, they catch the feeling and also pass it on. Helping children understand the feelings of others is an integral aspect of the curriculum of living together. The relationships among teachers, between children and teachers, and among children are fostered with warm and caring interactions.

A child cannot be spoiled by being loved and respected or by learning how to love and respect others.

Document pro-social behavior

Closely observing the children and forming documentation panels greatly helped Quann’s understanding of what was occurring in the classroom. After each panel was created, Quann met with the teachers to reflect on what had occurred.

This always brought out rich discussion and deeper reflection on the classroom experience. Then the panels were posted so that the children could observe and revisit their experiences with help from the teachers. When teachers carefully observe children for empathy and other positive social-emotional behaviors, and document those behaviors for others to see, they highlight the importance of constructing positive socio-emotional spaces for living. In uncertain and turbulent times, we consider such values a basic right and necessity for children.

Allow unhurried time

The episode in which Amanda helped Wyatt navigate between his needs and his limits in their early childhood setting is an example of the benefits that occur when teachers allow expansive time frames for activity. When Wyatt was first stuck at the sand table, a teacher could have just reached over and tapped the table aside so that he could get though. However, the teachers waited, to observe what might occur.

Amanda came quickly to Wyatt’s aid and gave him the help he needed to move throughout the room. Wyatt was empowered to move himself with a small amount of help, and Amanda was allowed to practice empathic behavior.

It is this type of keen observation and respectful interaction that permits children higher degrees of participation in deciding what to do and allows teachers to see the remarkable empathic reciprocity that even infants and toddlers seem capable of showing.

Copyright 2006 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

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Teaching Kindness and Empathy to Children

Posted with permission from ParentMap. Written by Linda Morgan.

We live in a world that's downright daunting. Expressions like "lockdown" and "road rage" have become part of the American lexicon. Fear-driven parents are left to search far and wide for safe havens for their children; havens where troubles melt like lemon drops and cyber-predators don't lurk in MySpace.

When my own kids were growing up, they biked solo around the neighborhood, walked alone and unarmed to the school bus stop, and stayed with unseasoned 13-year-old babysitters who, as far as I know, came without background checks.

We get that the times, they are a-changin', but most of us met the 21st century unprepared for the disharmony that's invaded it. Which has left everyone wondering, where has all the kindness gone - and how do we get it back?

One way to start, educators are saying, is by teaching our children social values such as self-discipline, respect, and, perhaps most important of all, empathy.

Here's the thinking: If kids learn to understand how others think and feel, they will better understand how their choices affect them and their peers. Ideally, they'll grow up with a consciousness that rejects hostility and violence.

"The idea is to decrease aggressive behaviors and increase social competence," says Claudia Glaze, director of client relations for the
Committee for Children. The Seattle-based organization develops classroom courses that focus on youth violence, bullying and personal safety, and child abuse and literacy.

The Committee created Second Step, a social-skills curriculum for kids age 4 to 14, that teaches social-emotional skills such as empathy, impulse control, and anger management. The programs are used throughout the U.S., and in Canada, Northern Europe, Japan and Scandinavia.

Second Step is based on the conviction that qualities such as empathy can be learned at school and at home. "When kids learn to take another person's perspective, they have an 'aha!' moment," notes Joan Cole Duffell, director of partnership development at the Committee for Children. "They suddenly realize they're not the only person in the room."

Born to empathize?

Researchers studying the biological origin of empathy (they're called "developmental neuroscientists") have found that infants are born with the ability to imitate. We've all seen it: the newborn who copies his dad's facial expression; the baby who shakes the rattle just like her mother. That kind of imitation lays the foundation for empathy, scientists say.

"We believe that when infants imitate, they are becoming 'like the other person' in action, with simple body movements," says Andrew Meltzoff, Ph.D, co-director of the Center for Mind, Brain & Learning at the University of Washington. "Later that can flower into empathy, which is the ability to become like the other person in emotion and perspective."

What does all this mean? The capacity for imitation's already wired into the DNA; our job is to help it grow into real emotional empathy and the ability to be compassionate. "Whether it blossoms or lies dormant largely depends on whether it is nurtured," Michele Borba writes in her book,
Building Moral Intelligence.

Meltzoff suggests parents begin nurturing empathy by playing imitative, reciprocal games with their babies. These can include using simple facial expressions such as opening their mouths, thrusting out their tongues, even just smiling. A few months later, parents can wave to their babies and play "peek-a-boo."

As they get older, talk to them about their day - and listen to what they say, advises David A. Levine, author of
Teaching Empathy: A Blueprint for Caring Compassion and Community. Levine calls this "high-level" listening.

"Ask open-ended questions, such as 'Help me understand what happened,'" Levine says. "Put effort and energy into understanding what your child or someone else went through. Then reflect back his or her feelings with a comment like, 'You must have been really disappointed.'"

Encourage kids to see other points of view, says Christy Stapleton, a clinical therapist at the Child and Family Guidance Center in Tacoma. "Take every opportunity to say to your child, 'How would you feel if that were you? What would you do?'"

Read books to your children that deal with feelings, Duffell suggests. "Engage in a dialogue about the book," she says. "Ask your child, 'How do you think this person is feeling now?'"

Find ways for your kids to show care and concern for others, Glaze says. "Maybe a neighbor is ill. Ask your children, 'How do we want to show him we care?' As they get older, help them find volunteer activities. Help them recognize kindness in all its forms."

And support school programs that help build social and emotional skills, says Duffell. "Not every child learns those skills at home. You can't assume every parent is mature; some are kids themselves."

Schools must attend to the whole child, she argues. "As citizens of the world's most powerful country, kids in the U.S. need to learn how to stand in other people's shoes," she says. "After all, one day these kids may be sitting at a negotiating table."

Linda Morgan,
ParentMap's associate editor, writes frequently on education issues.

How to teach empathy

  • Show empathy to your children. Young children (like all of us) love to receive empathy. Research shows that parenting with empathy and emotional guidance encourages healthy emotional growth.

  • Provide simple, clear explanations about how other people feel when they are sad or hurt. This is especially important if your child has caused these feelings in another. ("It makes Carlos feel bad when you call him names.") When this happens, be firm as you explain how these feelings work.

  • Be a good role model for empathy. Children are some of the best copycats around, and they are likely to copy the ways they see you treat people.

  • Praise your toddler's early acts of empathy - they are wonderful signs of learning to care about other people. When your toddler gives up his favorite toy to a younger sibling who's crying, make sure he knows you appreciate his action.

  • Don't expect empathy every time - young children are still learning how emotions work, and how people get along with others. Encourage empathy - but don't expect perfection.

    Source: Talaris Research Institute

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Nurturing Empathy
By Julia Glass, Parenting
 
On mellow summer evenings, my neighbor Holly Lance and I used to get our 2-year-old sons together outside for "run them bone tired" playdates. One evening, as they were sprinting and cavorting with typical pinball momentum, Holly's son, Stefan, burst into tears. Holding his elbow in obvious pain, he collapsed in his mother's arms. My son approached his inconsolable playmate with a look of alarm. He watched Stefan cry for a few seconds, then walked to a nearby wall, bumped his head against it, and erupted into sobs to rival Stefan's.

I had never seen Alec do anything so peculiar. Was he trying to upstage his friend? It was Holly who said, "What a sweet thing to do!" And then I saw that Alec had clearly been attempting - if somewhat clownishly - to comfort someone he loved. I'd long since begun to encourage Alec's verbal, physical, and musical abilities, but what about his emotional abilities? Should I be nurturing this flair for compassion? I wondered.

"At its simplest, empathy means feeling the same thing another person's feeling; at its most sophisticated, it's understanding his entire life situation," says Martin Hoffman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at New York University and author of Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice.

It's empathy that leads us, as adults, not just to help out friends and family but also to stop for a driver stranded by the side of the road, point a bewildered tourist in the right direction, even water a thirsty tree. Without it, our species would probably be extinct, says Hoffman. It is also a key to moral internalization - our children's increasing ability, as they grow, to make decisions by themselves that weigh others' needs and desires against their own.

Given the importance of this attribute, here's how to recognize empathy's earliest signs and encourage it to blossom.

Born to Connect
There you are squeezing melons in the produce aisle, your 1-year-old babbling blissfully away, when a baby over in the snack-foods section starts to wail. All too predictably, so does yours. Experts believe that such copycat grief may be an emotional reflex that helps "train" our nature toward a more genuine form of compassion.

"The root of empathy is being able to recognize a link between what it feels like for you to be in a particular emotional state and what that feels like for another person, and it looks as if we're born with a primitive form of that kind of identification," says Alison Gopnik, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of California at Berkeley and coauthor of The Scientist in the Crib. "Even within an hour of birth, babies will try to make the same facial expression they see someone else making." Over the next few months, infants strive to coordinate their gestures and vocalizations as well as their expressions with those of adults around them.

At about 9 months, a baby begins to pay attention to how others feel about things. Confronted with an unfamiliar object - a toy robot or pureed squash - he'll instantly look at Mom to read her take. If she looks apprehensive, he'll hold back; if she looks pleased, he'll probably dive right in. While this reveals a new depth of perception, it also shows that babies have yet to grasp the most fundamental principle of civilized society: Each of us is a separate being with individual proclivities and feelings. You can't comprehend the feelings of another person until you grasp the concept that there is such a thing as another person.

You Are You, I Am I: Discovering Others
"For most of the first year, babies are pretty confused about what's going on around them," says Hoffman. "If they see another baby fall down and need comfort from his mother, they'll cry and need comfort too."

About midway through the second year, most toddlers begin to recognize themselves in a mirror - seeing themselves as unique, distinct objects. They now see other people as separate - but only physically. They have yet to learn that different people have different inner states as well. So when one toddler sees another in distress, her instinct is to fetch her own mother rather than her playmate's, to placate the child with her own favorite toy. She'll recognize the suffering as belonging to someone else but can't imagine any appropriate remedy other than the one that would suit her. This impulse is one of the most common early signs of what we recognize as genuine empathy, and it may continue even after kids gain a greater sense of what makes other people tick.

When 4-year-old Shai Karp's mother was rushed to the hospital for an appendectomy, he went along and sat with her as she was being checked in for surgery. "He'd brought his favorite stuffed animal, Tumby - short for the 'tumble dry low' on its label," says his mother, Judy Wilner. "As I sat there, feeling miserable, Shai insisted I keep Tumby with me that night."

Somewhat ironically, the age at which this type of generosity arises is exactly when, behaviorally speaking, the Tubby custard hits the fan. Because just as toddlers are trying to learn how to make other people feel better, they're also learning how to make other people - most notably, their parents - feel decidedly worse. And it's not just, as I used to think, that Mother Nature throws in these random adorable moments to pacify our rage; the two tendencies are closely intertwined.

The Altruistic Twos?
Toward the end of the second year, children begin to understand that other people have thoughts, feelings, and wants different from their own - often through a process of trial and error. When a toddler trying to comfort his friend sees that his own favorite toy doesn't do the trick, he'll try the friend's favorite toy instead or he'll fetch the friend's mom.

This stage marks a primitive but true form of empathy, says Hoffman, one when children not only start to recognize the different experiences of other people but also, when necessary, reach out to them. "Empathy isn't just a feeling; it's a motive," he stresses. Whether we're throwing a bridal shower or helping a friend cope with a death in the family, empathy spurs us to partake in someone else's experience. We don't always act on the urge, but when we do, it often makes us feel good.

This eventful early age is also a period of intensive experimenting to find out what makes people different from one another. "It's around age two that we begin to see children perform these lovely altruistic acts - and do things precisely because we don't want them to," says Gopnik. "The same impulse that leads a child to think, 'Mom's crying, I'm not; I can comfort her,' also leads to 'Mom doesn't want me to touch that lamp; I can touch that lamp, I'm going to touch it.' If you think about what we want to encourage - understanding how other people feel - the 'terrible twos' is a part of that."

Toward a More Mature Compassion
From this point on, children refine and enlarge their perspective on other people's inner lives. In the preschool years, says Hoffman, they begin to perceive more subtle, removed feelings - such as that a classmate may be sad because he misses his parents. They also learn that a single event can lead to different reactions from different people. Sometime between ages 5 and 8 - having grasped their own gender and ethnic identity - they begin to look at each person around them as having a distinct personal history and to consider its influences on that person's experiences and feelings. "They also start to see how having different personalities makes people react differently, and they begin to take that into account when dealing with people," adds Gopnik.

Children are now on the threshold of what Hoffman says is a highly sophisticated form of empathy - empathy for another's experience beyond the immediate situation, a skill that we work on for the rest of our lives. They can see that some people have generally happy or sad lives, and they can begin to empathize with entire groups of people (the homeless, earthquake victims, firefighters battling an inferno).

Last Thanksgiving a friend's 4-year-old daughter had a poignant moment. "AnnaBess walked into the kitchen when her father was dressing the turkey," recalls her mother, Wendy Greenspun. "She started crying and said, 'Daddy, that turkey doesn't want to be dead! He wants to be alive! He wants to be with his friends.' She was extremely upset for almost an hour." Whether or not AnnaBess was expressing an unusually precocious empathy, this much is clear: She was saddened by another creature's hardship, and her outrage occurred spontaneously - without prompting by anyone else.

For when it comes to raising empathic children, says Hoffman, parents need not fret about following some rule book or missing a narrow window of opportunity. "The beauty of empathy," he says, "is that it comes naturally. It doesn't have to be forced. You need only nourish it."

Julia Glass recently won her third Nelson Algren Fiction Award and a fellowship in writing from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

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Professional Development: Why Children Need Limits

By T. Berry Brazelton, MD, and Stanley I. Greenspan, MD | April 2006
 
All learning, even of limits and structure, begins with nurturing care from which children learn trust, warmth, intimacy, empathy, and attachment to those around them, Limits and structure begin with nurturance and caring because 90% of teaching children to internalize limits is based on children's desire to please those around them.
 
Children want to please for different reasons: because they love their caregivers and want their approval and respect, or because they are afraid of being punished for misbehaving. Generally, they are motivated by a combination of the two.

Setting Limits

Children who limit their aggression and "bad behavior" strictly out of fear are likely to behave themselves in situations where there is an authority figure present because that's who will dispense the punishment. Fear tends to be situation-specific. Many children don't generalize well from fear. For example, a child who learns to be scared about hitting a sibling may not hit the sibling when the parent is present, but she may hit other children at school because she hasn't been punished explicitly for hitting other children at school.

When discipline is seen as teaching and is conveyed with a great deal of empathy and nurturing care, children feel good when they comply. It is a warm, nourishing feeling to know that you are the gleam in someone's eye.

Internalizing Standards

Internalized standards have a number of levels. They begin with feeling nurtured and cared for by others. They then evolve into both feeling nurtured and cared for by others and feeling respected. Respect leads to the development of inner goals and eventually inner values. Meeting these inner goals and values can lead a child to feel nurtured and good inside, even in the absence of authority figures.

When such a system is in place and children or teenagers are guided by inner values and goals, they can be in a variety of situations and make wise judgments about the appropriateness of their behavior. They will be abiding not just by their parents, their teachers, or society in general, but by their own inner sense of values and goals. In contrast to fear-based limits, which tend to be situation-specific and concrete, internalized limits lead to a much broader, finely discriminated set of guidelines necessary for children to operate in our complex, multifaceted society.

Respecting Individual Differences

Children who feel unique and special are much more likely to develop a set of expectations for themselves regarding relationships and learning that will feel fulfilling and meaningful. If they feel as though they are carrying out someone else's agenda, it can lead to rebellion, or a sense of compliance, or just passivity.

Children also need to feel the sense of pleasure that comes from mastery in the areas of life that are important, or will be important, to them. This sense of mastery does not wait until a person is a professional athlete or a Nobel Prize-winning scientist; it starts with the small steps involved in the learning process itself.

As we learn about the steps leading to different capacities, we are often able to tailor approaches to individual children so that more and more children can develop a sense of mastery. By working on children's actual competencies and developmental steps, we are able to help the child associate expectations with an assertive, mastery-oriented attitude.

Such an approach also teaches children to tolerate frustration and to deal with loss and disappointment. By giving children a chance to master the tools of learning in all the areas of life, we foster an assertive attitude and an ability to pursue and fulfill expectations.

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References
 

Batson, C.D., & L.L. Shaw. 1991. Evidence for altruism: Toward a pluralism of prosocial motives. Psychological Inquiry 2 (2): 107–22.

Braten, S., ed. 1998. Intersubjective communication and emotion in early ontogeny. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Cadwell, L.B. 2003. Bringing learning to life: The Reggio approach to early childhood education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Dahlberg, G., P. Moss, & A. Pence. 1999. Beyond quality in early childhood education and care: Postmodern perspectives. London: Falmer.

Damon, W. 1988. The moral child: Nurturing children’s natural moral growth. New York: The Free Press.

Denham, S.E. 1998. Emotional development in young children. New York: Guilford.

Eisenberg, N. 1982. The development of prosocial behavior. New York: Academic.

Eisenberg, N. 1986. Altruistic emotion, cognition, and behavior. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Eisenberg, N. 1992. The caring child. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Giudici, C., C. Rinaldi, & M. Krechevsky, eds. 2001. Making learning visible: Children as individual and group learners. Cambridge, MA: Project Zero/Reggio Children.

Hendrick, J. 1998. Total learning: Developmental curriculum for the young child. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Hoffman, M. 1982. Development of prosocial motivation: Empathy and guilt. In The development of prosocial behavior, ed. N. Eisenberg, 281–313. New York: Academic.

Hoffman, M.L. 2000. Empathy and moral development: Implications for caring and justice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Kohlberg, L. 1969. Stage and sequence: The cognitive-developmental approach to socialization. In Handbook of socialization theory and research, ed. D.A. Goslin, 347–480. Chicago: Rand McNally.

Kohlberg, L. 1984. Essays on moral development. Volume 2: The psychology of moral development. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Kohlberg, L., C. Levine, & A. Hewer. 1983. Moral stages: A current formulation and a response to critics. Basel, Switzerland: Karger.

Noddings, N. 1984. Caring: A feminine approach to ethics and moral education. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Malaguzzi, L. 1998. History, ideas, and basic philosophy. In The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education, 2nd ed., eds. C. Edwards, L. Gandini, & G. Forman, 49–97. Greenwich, CT: Ablex.

Piaget, J. [1932] 1965. The moral judgment of the child. New York: The Free Press.

Sroufe, L.A. 1996. Emotional development: The organization of emotional life in the early years. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Valerie Quann, MEd, ECEC, teaches in the School of Early Childhood Education at Seneca College in Toronto, Ontario. Valerie has a particular interest in studying and teaching issues related to curricula, infant/toddler development, and the design of high-quality environments.

Carol Anne Wien, PhD, is an associate professor in the Faculty of Education, York University, Toronto, Canada. She is the author of Developmentally Appropriate Practice in “Real Life” and Negotiating Standards in the Primary Classroom and many articles on early childhood curriculum and teacher development.

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