How do we cultivate the skills and values that people need to deal patiently and effectively with others’ distressing behavior? If you look at how young children learn to be empathetic you can see the key skills they need. The first skill is simply having an awareness of their own emotional reactions. Imagine that four-year-old preschooler Ryan opens the lunch his mom prepared for him and starts to cry. In a high quality preschool, one of the adults might join him and talk empathically about how he is feeling: “Oh are you feeling really sad?” In doing so, she is helping him learn the names for his feelings.
When asked why he is upset, he says that his mother promised to put a cookie in his lunch, but there isn’t one. His teacher might commiserate with him, acknowledging that that would make her sad too and showing through her tone of voice and facial expression that she feels sad about his predicament. Their interaction helps Ryan not only to be able to describe what he is feeling, but also to understand that feelings result from things that happen to us. And as he calms down and gets the comfort of a caring adult, he is learning to accept and move through his emotions—a small step in the development of his emotional regulation.
But being empathic also requires that you be able to see things from the perspective of the other person. If I am going to experience caring and concern about how you are feeling, I first have to know what you are feeling. Research on perspective taking suggests that young children learn that others see things from a different perspective—literally. As they become more adept at realizing that what others see is not what they see, they become better able to discern the emotions that others are feeling.
The process is illustrated by a test that three-year-olds usually fail, but five-year-olds easily pass. Show a three-year-old a video of an adult putting a pencil in a green box while a child named Charlie watches. Then, after Charlie leaves the room, the adult takes the pencil out of the green box and puts it into the red box. When the child is asked what box Charlie will look in to find the pencil, younger children say the red box. Older children will correctly say the green box. The younger child has not yet learned to see things from Charlie’s perspective. Just because I saw you move the pencil, doesn’t mean that Charlie did.
If children are able to notice and describe their own emotions and also able to take the perspective of another child, they may then be able to experience the emotions that another child is feeling. Suppose that Ryan sees Kaitlin is upset and learns that her mother didn’t put the treat in her lunch that she had expected: Ryan may then understand and even experience some of the emotion that Kaitlin is feeling.
These experiences form the foundation for empathy—the ability to perceive and experience what another person is thinking or feeling. But by themselves, they do not guarantee the loving kindness that we need to build in our society. A child who perceived that another was upset about her lunch might use that as an occasion to tease the other child. To build the compassionate and caring society, we need to promote, teach, and richly reinforce such loving kindness.
You might think that kind behavior that is praised or otherwise rewarded by adults doesn’t count as a genuine instance of compassion. But that is how these vital repertoires are built. Each time you appreciate a child’s kind behavior you have taken another step on the road to building the behaviors and values of compassion and caring.
By cultivating these patient, nurturing family and school environments, we can help young children learn to understand and regulate their own emotions, understand the emotions of others, and react to others’ distress with empathy and caring. We help them go from their automatic distressed and angry reactions to more patient, empathic, and skilled ways of dealing with others distressed and distressing behavior. In the process, we will cultivate their valuing of nurturance of themselves and others.
In sum, you can cultivate empathy and the kindness that can go with it by:
- Helping children to learn about their emotions, by empathetically joining them when they experience emotions and teaching them the names for their emotions and the circumstances that prompt them.
- Teaching them to see that other people see the world from a different perspective. Simple discussions about what you see and what they see can help.
- Teach them to recognize emotions in others. You can ask them about what they think other people are feeling, for example, in reading stories to them or when the see something bad happen to another.
- Ask them about the emotions they feel when they see others feeling sad, or angry.
- Notice and express your appreciation and approval when you see them acting in kind ways to others or when they show that they are taking other people’s perspectives.