From her office at the N.E. Miles Early Childhood Development Center at the College of Charleston, director Katie Houser can look through a window and watch children on the facility’s playground. Occasionally, she’ll notice small moments such as one child falling or taking a tumble off a bike, and another helping them up or offering a supportive hug.
“It just starts to happen,” said Houser, who worked in Charleston County public schools for 17 years. “You can see it all the time in the building, just by walking around the kids. It’s really special.”
What happens is children showing the first signs of empathy—that quality of identifying and understanding the feelings or emotions of another. Empathy is a trait that helps people connect with one another, fostering a kindness that opens up humans to the wider world around them. The development of empathy begins in childhood, and in kids figuring out the swirl of emotion that surrounds them every day.
“I truly believe that children want to be good and make good choices. Ultimately, they want to do what makes them feel good,” said Summer Gerth, learning support specialist at The O’Quinn Schools of Porter-Gaud. “When they’re responding with care and understanding, they’re helping someone and see the results, that makes them feel good. The carryover is awesome.”
Studies show that children who show empathy are less likely to be bullies, less likely to be antisocial, and less likely to show aggressive behavior later in life. Research indicates that empathy is innate—it can even be found in some other species, such as elephants. Even toddlers can quickly realize that offering a hug can make a crying friend or sibling feel better. But given that some adults and even teens can show a marked lack of empathy, letting nature take its course isn’t always enough.
“I think empathy is something that has to be modeled, but it also starts with helping children understand their own feelings. That’s the first step,” Gerth said. “They have to be able to understand what their feelings mean before they can start to understand what others are feeling.”
Emotional cause and effect
Like reading or writing, empathy is a skill that develops over time. Even as young as 2, children begin to develop a sense of self and a realization that other people are around them. Showing empathy can begin with mimicking a behavior—when they see a parent hug a crying sibling, for instance, they may offer to do the same thing, even if they aren’t yet entirely sure what it means.
“Toddlers don’t have that ability to go outside of themselves. They only know themselves, so their first and primary goal is to comfort themselves,” said Jacquelynn Pleis, assistant professor of education at Charleston Southern University. By the time they’re 3 or 4, kids are beginning to understand basic emotions, a process that parents can help by tying those emotions back to a cause.
Jacquelynn Pleis, assistant professor of education at Charleston Southern University
“They’re crying because they dropped the ice cream cone, and they’re sad. There’s a connection between emotion and cause,” Pleis said. “Because later when it comes to empathy, the person has to be able to understand the cause of the sadness, and realize these are not random emotions. They are connected to a specific cause.”
If there’s one key to raising an empathetic child, experts agree, it’s helping them to identify and understand their own feelings—because they need to be able to recognize their own emotions before they can recognize emotions in others. At The O’Quinn Schools, which serve children aged 2 through kindergarten, classrooms in January featured a feelings chart - each week, students talked about different emotions and how they’re expressed.
“It’s our job to model what that looks like: ‘You seem upset, how can I help?’ And the next part is connecting those thoughts and feelings to behaviors,” Gerth said. “For example, ‘Max is sad because Oliver took his toy. What can we do to make Max feel better?’”
That connection can also be reinforced through activities like puppet shows, playing with stuffed animals, or even pretending with a teacher or a parent. “It’s helping the kids understand the connection between the action and the reaction,” Houser said. “They’re starting to see how the other person is feeling. That’s a big part of our toddler room.”
By the time children are 5, they’re typically able to pick up on nonverbal cues such as facial expressions—a process that can be helped by books that feature characters with grimacing or smiling faces. And language matters, Pleis said: a crying character in a book, for instance, “feels sad” rather than “is sad,” because children need to recognize that sadness is an emotion that will pass. “We want to be able to show a child that just because you’re sad right now does not mean you’re going to be sad in 15 minutes,” she added. “And that’s normal. It’s normal to have different emotions.”
Of course, children developing that ability to recognize and understand their emotions doesn’t always come easily, given how temperamentally combustible toddlers can be. Children who are easily upset may lack the self-control to stop and think beyond themselves.
“It’s two-fold: it’s teaching empathy and practicing it and celebrating it, but it’s also kids being able to have that self-control skill where they can take a breath,” Houser said. “Because when kids have a hard time managing their feelings or a hard time with self-control, it can be hard for them to be able to emphasize with somebody else. Getting there can take a lot longer.”
Another common mistake parents may make with young children is assigning an emotion to the child rather than helping them to identify it. That habit can lead to detrimental effects even into the teenage years, Pleis said.
“A very common misconception among parents is to tell the child what they’re feeling,” added Pleis, a former public school teacher. “They say, ‘You’re feeling sad right now,’ when actually the child may be angry. They’re crying because that’s their physical response. We want to ask them, ‘Are you feeling sad right now, like Sally felt in the story? Or are you feeling angry, like Lucy felt?’
“You’re trying to help them identify their own feelings without telling them what the feelings are. And as they get older, it’s more important to ask them how they’re feeling rather than telling them how they’re feeling. Because when you get to the teenage years, that’s when you’re going to get ‘You don’t understand me!’ because you’re trying to tell them how they feel instead of asking them how they feel.”
It’s not an easy process for every child or for every parent. Just as there are adults who struggle with empathy, there are children who struggle with empathy. “It can be a lifelong struggle. Sometimes we get too busy with our own lives,” Gerth said. “But my belief is that if you teach it at 2 years old, and you hear it in the 3s and in the 4s and kindergarten, then by the time they go to first grade, they can tell you what empathy means, and they’re starting to use it.”
Other resources can be helpful. Some students Gerth works with have recognized empathy in “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” a cartoon series on public television. She also likes “The Stinky and Dirty Show,” an Amazon animated series about a garbage truck and backhoe who are best friends and unlikely heroes. “Sesame Street,” of course, is a timeless mainstay. “My Many Colored Days,” a posthumous Dr. Seuss release, illustrates feelings and moods in vivid hues. For kids who are a little older, Pleis likes The Great Cheese Chase, a cooperative board game in which players need to work together rather than compete against one another.
As with so many other things, parental involvement is key. Parents who show empathy themselves are more likely to raise empathetic kids who pick up on the behavior modeled around the house. “It goes back to that emphasis, and parents are empathizing with their own child. Sometimes that’s hard, because all of us get wrapped up in things as parents and are busy,” Houser said.
“But I think that it’s just really taking the time, and understanding and respecting them, and knowing your child and taking a general interest in their lives. Because when you’re empathizing with them, they can start to learn that from you, ask questions, and then model it at home. If you’re demonstrating it for others, they see you.”
Pleis’ children have certainly noticed. Charleston Southern returned to in-person classes in January, and Pleis was putting her 10-year-old to bed one night when her 13-year-old entered the room. “Mom,” she said, “are you all right?” Indeed, Pleis answered, it had been a long day. “Mom, you worked too hard today,” her teenager responded. “If there’s anything I can do to help you tomorrow, let me know.”