Your Child's Brain in Week 88
If you pay attention to your toddler as he watches, listens to, and interacts with the people in his everyday world these days, you may pick up a subtle—but sweet and pride-inducing—new social trait: Empathy! At 21 months, your child not only understands, for example, that while he prefers cheesy goldfish crackers, someone else might prefer broccoli (this was a skill he picked up back in week 83). You also know that emotional eavesdropping—that is, gaining information by the interactions around him—is a major factor for your toddler right now. Now, incredibly, your child will show concern for a distressed buddy or passerby, regardless of his own emotions.
Why is this so important? In order for people to manage themselves effectively among others, they need to acquire the ability to sense how another person is thinking and feeling. Empathy involves awareness of our own behavior in the context of other people nearby—both literally, in our immediate proximity, and in the greater communities around us.
So, this seemingly insignificant ability is fundamentally what shapes all relationships your child has in his life—it's a seriously big-kid skill!
What the Research Shows
In an experiment, researchers trained mothers to observe and report on their one- to two-and-a-half year-olds' responses to naturally occurring situations that involved another's distress. They reported on instances of harm that the children witnessed as bystanders (e.g., their mother being splattered by grease from the stove) and distress that the child, himself, caused (e.g., stepping on the dog's tail).
From the mothers' reports, researchers determined that empathetic reactions surfaced at about 12 months: Young children would offer hugs and pats to their distressed mothers or inadvertent victims. By the end of their second year of life, toddlers' empathetic behaviors became more varied and more appropriate to the distressed person's needs: Children would attempt to help, provide physical comfort, offer verbal sympathy, protect, or defend the one in distress, as if to say, "I see what has happened, and can tell that you are hurting. I want to do something to help!" Some children would ask, "What's the matter?" if their mother injured herself, a baby cried, or a dog yelped.
When children cause the distress in the other person, they show less concern. Interestingly, some behave aggressively toward the affected person; others even appear to enjoy their victim's sadness. (Eeeps!) Think about it: When one child grabs a toy from another, she's not really concerned that her playmate is now peeved—she's happy that she now has the toy in her possession. And likely, she isn't particularly curious as to the reason why her friend is crying, perhaps because she suspects that she, herself, caused it.
This research shows that as kids are better able to define themselves as distinct from others, they're also better able to comprehend their empathetic feelings: "Julian is crying because he fell on his knee. I feel bad for him, but I know my own knee is fine." Also, over time, children develop a plan for helping the people around them in distress: Rather than crying when their buddy tears up, a two-year-old would find a tissue for his friend.