How Do I Teach My Three-Year-Old Empathy?

The following request for advice was recently posted to a parents’ forum I’m a part of. I’ve changed some of the specifics so as to protect the anonymity of the mom who posted, and my response to her follows!

I know that children learn empathy through modeling and it takes time, but I would like some thoughts on how to cultivate it in my 3-year-old. He is a very affectionate boy and not at all aggressive. But I wish I could teach him to care more about how his actions affect others.

For example, at the playground, if my boy accidentally pushes a younger child over and the child starts crying, my boy is usually totally unmoved and will keep a big smile on his face, even as he observes the other child. Or if he says something to me that is not nice and I say that that makes me sad, he is happy, because he’s gotten a reaction from me — and he doesn’t seem to feel at all bad about the fact that he made me feel sad. My problem is not that he doesn’t observe others’ emotions — he does — he just doesn’t seem to care. I know my son is probably normal for his age, but what can I do to help him learn sensitivity to others’ feelings?


Dear Concerned,

I’ve helped many, many parents develop empathy in younger children, even the very aggressive ones who acted out in ways that led to significant trouble in school (expulsions, etc.). And I agree with you – modeling is an important piece. What you describe does indeed sound very normal for a 3-year-old, so it sounds like you have a good handle on this situation.

Having said this, though, if you want to do more than you’re already doing, you may be able to take your modeling to another level. Here’s one thing you can do: The next time your son does something that makes another child unhappy, approach that child with your son and do exactly what you’d like your son to do, as if you were he. So if he accidentally knocks his friend over, put your arm around your son, go to the friend, and say exactly what you’d like your son to say: “I’m sorry I knocked you over. Are you OK?” (This seems strange, to be talking as if you were your son, but it works for children this age and here the goal is not “normal” communication; the goal is to model in a way that works well for three-year-olds.) Finally, don’t put any energy at all into trying to get your son to do what you’re doing. Just do it, but keep him with you so he’ll see what you’re doing.

Another modeling technique you can use: Do something nice for someone else when your son is present, and as you do this, make some of your own “inner empathy” external and transparent, so your son can observe your thought process: “I’m going to get some of these olives for Grandma. Grandma loves these olives, and I’m going to get some for her because I really like to do nice things for Grandma.”

Another thing you can do is double-check to be certain that you’re showing empathy to your son. So if he’s angry that you’ve set a boundary: “You’re really angry. I understand why. You didn’t get to … [whatever]…” (All of this while still maintaining that boundary, of course!)

I hope this gives you some new ideas! And again, I think modeling works especially well if you don’t try to rationalize or “teach” at the same time you’re modeling. Just model, and he’ll get the message in an organic way that tends to bypass resistance. And you’ll watch his learning and growth with amazement – just as you did when he learned to walk and run!

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