If Children Ruled the World, What a Kinder Place it Would Be

As a parent, you always hope your child will be empathetic to others.  As educators, we want to create environments that foster empathy and compassion.

Every day we witness toddlers showing empathy, whether it’s nurturing a doll, running to give a friend a big hug or rushing over when someone is hurt or upset. The way they care and show love for one another is constantly being demonstrated inside and outside our classrooms. Acts of empathy are an important form of communication among toddlers.


Julia is very empathetic when it comes to her friends.  Throughout the day you can find her helping her friends – bringing them their shoes, giving hugs and kisses and checking to make sure they are okay.
On this particular day she was rubbing Olivia’s back as she was just waking up.


There is a saying that empathy is caught, not taught and it is important to remember this in our interactions with children. There are many ways to nurture empathy. First and foremost we must empathize with children and show empathy towards others. Research shows that children are born with the capacity for empathy, but it needs to be nurtured through practice and guidance. We want children to adopt values like kindness and empathy and model these behaviours. Children learn empathy through our interactions with them and by watching our interactions with others. We also need to take time to explain certain situations so children truly understand what is happening, allowing them the opportunity to take in how others are feeling.

Deb Curtis from Harvest Resources reminded us of this when she narrated a story of two infants in her program who both loved their soothers. When Sam couldn’t find his, he took the other child’s soother right from her mouth, popped it into his mouth and ran away. Instead of just giving the soother back to the upset child, Deb took time to speak with both children, explaining how she realized they both loved their soothers, “Sam lost his – imagine how he feels. This is why Sam took your soother – because he couldn’t find his and he really wanted and needed a soother to make him feel better…so let’s help Sam find his together.”

“They {children} learn to soothe themselves by being soothed. It’s a two way street of serve and return (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004). We are wired to connect to others.”

BeFunky Collageliam 2Liam is feeling sad and calling for his Dad. Julia notices that Liam is upset as she walks by and offers him a pat on the back. Julia may recall this action from when she is upset and knows that this is what comforts her. After a few minutes Julia crouches down to look at Liam’s face to see if he is still crying. When she sees that he has calmed, she offers a pat on the head, as if to say “all better”, which makes Liam laugh.

So how do we as parents and educators further nurture and support these wonderful dispositions?

• Ask for their help when caring for a younger child. Discuss how the younger child may be feeling as a result of their assistance. Recognize the helper’s effort by explaining how the child really helped someone who needed their assistance. A great sense of accomplishment will be felt.

• Allow children to be more hands on when caring for living things such as plants or animals. At our recent Study Institute we were intrigued to learn how educators in a toddler room placed living fish in one of their open water tables, with no restrictions. The toddlers learned about gentle hands and soothing actions and taught other children visiting their room to not touch the fish or splash the water because it could scare or hurt the fish.

• Recognize and encourage young children for showing acts of caring and empathy to non-living things, such as dolls or stuffed animals. When doing this they are successfully nurturing and practicing these wonderful dispositions.

BeFunky CollageLeilana Feeding, rocking or cradling the baby dolls is a very popular activity in our classrooms. Children show true love for the babies by caring for them and giving them love and attention. Leilana was sitting on the bench rocking her baby saying “shhhshhh”. Lucas ran over to Leilana, offering her the doll bottle. Leilana graciously accepted the bottle and began feeding her baby. Lucas then came back with a blanket, perhaps he thought the baby was cold. These acts of kindness show us Lucas feels empathy.

• Parents can discuss something that happened at work and describe how it made them feel. Perhaps a potential client selected someone else. Seeing emotions from those close to them helps children better understand and comprehend their own feelings. This opportunity can be used to shed a positive light. It could be explained how the client mentioned they would consider them next time and how that made them feel relieved and excited about getting another chance to work with the client. Seeing adults positively respond indicates to children that it’s okay to feel the way they do sometimes.

• Educate children about buddy benches, and how they were created to reduce children’s loneliness and to foster friendship, and then introduce one to your playground. You will be amazed at how children immediately respond out of empathy to a classmate sitting there alone, hoping for a playmate.

Each child’s disposition is different and it is important to consider this when deciding which situations are appropriate. Keep in mind that incredible opportunities to nurture empathy may be lost by fearing young children might not be able to handle certain situations.

I struggled with this when my mother was terminally ill with a degenerative disease. My children were very young at the time and I worried they might become frightened or upset as they observed their grandmother’s increasingly debilitating ailments – her struggles to walk, dress herself, eat and even talk. On the contrary, my children handled the situation brilliantly.

Much to Mom’s delight, my children would fight over whose turn it was to push Grandma in her wheelchair or feed her. Without being asked, my son would often crawl right into the hospital bed to brush Grandma’s hair, perhaps recalling how it made her feel on previous occasions. My children saw, and more importantly felt, the difference their actions made to someone they really cared about and Mom was always sure to express this to them. I cannot say who derived more joy from these experiences, my mom or my children. It was incredible to witness the nurturing, compassion and empathy, and resulted in some of my most precious memories. I am so thankful that I gave them the opportunity to share in all the adventures with Grandma, the good and the not so good. These dispositions have stayed with them, shaping their mannerisms and personalities. Now young adults, I see them continue to exhibit the same traits they learned when they were young. I feel these experiences made them better citizens.

1-1e0dcdabee30fb1e8e66f76d3498cb0c GIFDr. Warneken, a professor of psychology at Harvard University developed experiments to see what humans are really like, in their early toddler form, and found that young children instinctively are moved to help those in need – click on the photo to your left. Warneken’s research further concluded that not only do we want to help others – we derive joy from it. Uplifting short video clips of some of Warneken’s experiments can be found HERE.

Just because a child is not showing empathy does not mean the child is not capable of it. Some children might not be as intuitive at recognizing how someone else is feeling. It could also mean another more powerful emotion such as anger, shame, or envy is blocking their empathy, overwhelming their ability to have concern for the feelings of others. Helping children manage these negative feelings is often what “releases” their empathy. Some suggestions on how to assist with this and more information on cultivating empathy in children can be found HERE.

Blog Contributors:  Lori Cox, April Kerr, Shannon Behan, and Mary Reynolds

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