Why Teaching Empathy May Not Be As Hard As You Think

I remember the first time I noticed my son showing true compassion, because I happen to have a picture of it. One afternoon before his first birthday — during that luxurious and fleeting parenting stage when your child stays where you put him — I had laid out a blanket on the grass with a basket of toys in the backyard. Picking up a stuffed monkey, I started making him bounce next to my son, dancing and singing around him, then exclaiming, “Oh monkey is so thirsty!”

What happened next impressed me so much I actually whipped out my phone to take a picture: my little baby looked at the monkey, then looked around him, picked up a toy sippy cup and held it to the monkey’s mouth. First off, I was a little shocked he knew what I was saying. We were months away from his first words beyond “Dada” and “Mama,” yet he had clearly understood what my words meant even without any physical cues. More importantly, I was taken aback by this apparently innate comprehension of what needed to happen and his desire to be helpful. It was my first glimpse into the impressive ability of kids from a very young age to understand and respond to the needs of others.

This got me thinking that we may be overthinking how to teach empathy. It’s the natural inclination of any new parent to want to do all we can to raise good kids. What books should we read to them? Should we enroll them in daycare? Should we bring them to playgroups? What should we say to make them understand that they should be kind to others? But watching my son perform a basic act of nurturing without any prompting highlighted a rather obvious conclusion: our kids learn to care about others by watching us care about them.

Sometimes, the simple answer just feels too simple, and it’s nice to have a little research behind it. I started reading more about the importance of modeling in raising compassionate kids and was drawn to an article by Dr. Lawrence Kutner, a clinical psychologist and teacher at Harvard Medical School. About empathy, he confirmed, “The best teachers of that skill are the children’s parents. Infants and toddlers learn the most by how their parents treat them when they are cranky, frightened, or upset. Although the best training for empathy begins in infancy, it’s never too late to start.”

The library in our town offers a program for toddlers called “Baby Doll Story Time” and we attend every week. At first, I didn’t think it was designed to be much more than just a fun time for my son to be around other kids and maybe learn some new songs. But there’s a real philosophy behind it: by practicing basic caretaking skills, kids strengthen their ability to nurture others. They sing songs about their baby being swaddled, rocked, hugged, fed and loved, and the sincerity with which they approach the tasks makes it clear that they truly believe in the importance of their actions. And how do they know what to do? Because for these lucky kids, their entire life up to this point has been filled with someone meeting those needs when they’ve had them. Most parents don’t think twice about feeding their child when they’re hungry, comforting them when they’re upset or easing their pain when they’re uncomfortable. Still, it’s hard not to feel a swell of pride when you watch your own kid tend to the needs of their baby doll with the same tender compassion that you’ve been tending to his needs for so many long days and nights.

This is a small parenting revelation in the grand scheme of things, but it has some pretty major consequences as our kids become adults. In the Science section of The New York Times, Daniel Goldman wrote, “Small acts of sympathy and caring, observed in scientific studies, are leading researchers to trace the roots of empathy — the ability to share another’s emotions — to infancy, contradicting a longstanding assumption that infants and toddlers were incapable of these feelings. By adulthood, the differences in empathy affect people’s moral awareness…in making moral decisions like how or whether to help the poor.”

I think about this every day now. Nearly a year since our monkey picnic, my son spends his days barreling around the yard, falling on the pavement and being constantly underfoot as I’m trying to cook anything resembling a meal. When he says he’s hurt, even when I know he’s not, I take some time to give a genuine hug and kiss. And when I accidentally bump him when I turn to drain the pasta, I stop what I’m doing, look him in the eyes and say, “I’m sorry.” Because, if I were hurt or someone knocked into me, I think the least empathetic thing they could tell me is “You’re OK.”

Direct parenting aside, when I make larger decisions, knowing how malleable this moral awareness is in children definitely gives me the extra push to make the most compassionate choices I can make. I might not be talking directly to my son about the meal I brought to our neighbors who had their second child or the donation I made to a sick coworker who couldn’t afford her treatments. I don’t even explain why we paused our grocery trip for six minutes and patiently listened while an elderly woman told us about how my son reminds her of raising her children. But I’m careful about trying my best to be the type of person I want my son to be — because his little eyes are always watching.