One of the most important values that parents pass on to their children is empathy—that is, the ability to recognize what other people are feeling AND the willingness to take action to help them feel better—and in general to be kind and helpful to others. As Dr. Susan Goodwyn and I point out in our book, Baby Hearts, feeling empathy for others is important to your child’s future because research shows that children who are high in empathy are more popular with their peers, get along better with teachers and other adults, and in general, tend to live lives that garner them respect and affection.
What can you do to help your child develop this important emotional trait? The photo I’ve added to the right of this posting provides a clue to one easy strategy. The photo shows my 22-month-old granddaughter, Olivia, very carefully filling our dog’s food bowl. The strategy it illustrates is to provide lessons in empathy by involving your child with the care of animals. Children are naturally attracted to animals and seem to easily grasp the dependence of many animals (particularly pets) on the love and attention of humans. If your child is too young for a major pet (such as a dog or cat) or other circumstances rule them out, try installing a bird feeder outside or an aquarium inside. Be sure to talk about how animals feel many of the same feelings your child does—like hunger, thirst (except for fish, of course!) and pain—and also explain how to properly care for the animal. Even very young children can help feed fish, add seed to a bird feeder, or fill a pet’s water bowl—and lessons about being gentle can never begin too early.
Use this strategy and you’re be laying the foundation for the very important trait of feeling empathy for PEOPLE.
Happy Signing! (And don't forget to visit Baby Signs on Facebook!)
Linda Acredolo, Ph.D.
Co-Founder, the Baby Signs Program
andProfessor Emeritus, UC Davis