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What to expect at this age
Human beings are prewired to be empathetic, at least to some extent: Research shows that when one infant in a nursery cries, those who cry along tend to grow up to have the most empathy. (So take heart the next time your baby starts wailing the minute your preschooler breaks down in tears.) Still, 3- and 4-year-olds, as any parent knows, are not models of selfless, generous behavior. "They're not developmentally capable of understanding empathy," says Jane Nelsen, a child therapist and co-author of Positive Discipline for Preschoolers. "But this doesn't mean you shouldn't keep teaching it to them. If your preschooler hits his sister, for instance, you can say, 'It hurts when you hit people. Here's how you touch nicely. How does that feel?' At some point your words will kick in – just expect it to take a while."
What you can do
Label the feeling. Begin by putting a name to your preschooler's behavior so he can recognize emotions. Say, "Oh, you're being so kind," when he kisses your hurt finger. He'll learn from your reaction that his responsiveness is recognized and valued. He needs to understand negative emotions, too, so don't be afraid to calmly point out when your preschooler's being less than caring. Try saying, "It made your baby brother really sad when you grabbed his rattle. What could you do to help him feel better?"
Another way to teach your preschooler to understand and define his emotions is to have a "feeling of the week." Each week, put up on the refrigerator or bulletin board a picture of someone experiencing a basic emotion – sadness, happiness, surprise, anger. Talk with your child about times when he felt each of these emotions.
Praise empathetic behavior. When your preschooler performs an act of kindness, tell him what he did right, and be as specific as possible: "You were very generous to share your toy car with your baby brother! That made him happy. See how he's smiling?"
Encourage your preschooler to talk about his feelings – and yours. Let him know that you care about his feelings by listening intently. Look him in the eye when he talks to you, and paraphrase what he says. When he shouts, "Hooray!" for example, respond with "Oh, you're feeling happy today." He may not know how to answer if you ask him why, but he'll have no problem talking about "feeling happy." Similarly, you can share your own feelings with him: "I feel sad that you hit me. Let's think of another way you could tell me you don't want to wear those shoes." He'll learn that his actions affect others, a tough concept for young children to grasp.
It's also fine to share your feelings even if they don't relate to your child's actions. You can say, "I'm sad that I didn't get to mail my letter to Grandma today" or "Sometimes I get annoyed with Daddy even though I love him very much." Your preschooler will learn that adults have feelings and emotions too, that they're a normal part of life, and that learning to cope with them is an important part of growing up.
Point out other people's behavior. Teach your preschooler to notice when someone else behaves kindly. Try saying, "Remember that lady at the grocery store, the one who helped us pick up our food when I dropped the bag? She was really nice to us, and she made me feel better when I was upset." By doing this, you reinforce your child's understanding of how people's actions can affect him emotionally. Books also provide good examples for preschoolers to relate to. Ask your child how he thinks the lost puppy in one story is feeling, or why the little girl in another is smiling. Tell him how you'd feel if you were one of those characters, and ask how he'd react. These discussions will help him learn about other people's emotions and relate them to his own.
Teach verbal cues. Some kids have trouble understanding different tones of voice. Your preschooler may not realize that his little sister is whining because she's unhappy and wants him to stop teasing her. Help him tune into other people's emotions by making a game out of it. Repeat a phrase in several different tones of voice and have him guess what you mean each time. Say the words "Listen to me" as though you were angry, happy, or had a secret to share, for example, and see if he can detect the difference in each version.
Teach nonverbal cues. At the playground or park, find a quiet place where you and your preschooler can sit and observe others without being rude. Play a game of guessing what other people are feeling, and explain the specific reasons for your own guesses: "See that little boy? I think he's happy, because he's jumping up and down and laughing. What could be making him so happy?"
Teach basic rules of politeness. Good manners are a concrete way for your preschooler to show caring and respect for others. As soon as he can communicate verbally, he can begin to say "please" and "thank you." Explain that you're more inclined to help him when he's polite to you, and that you don't like it when he orders you around. Of course, being polite to him is worth a thousand rules and explanations. Say "please" and "thank you" regularly to your preschooler and to others, and he'll learn that these phrases are part of normal communication, both at home and out in public.
Don't use anger to control your child. Though it's easy to get upset when your preschooler whacks his baby sister, try not to use anger as a tool to manage her behavior. Teaching by instruction and example is much more effective, especially at this age. "When you say, 'I'm really mad at you,' children shut down and withdraw," says Jerry L. Wyckoff, a psychologist and coauthor of Twenty Teachable Virtues. "Instead, show your child empathy." Rather than getting angry, take a moment to calm yourself down. Then say firmly, "I know you were mad, but you shouldn't hit your sister. That hurt her, and it made me sad. Please tell her you're sorry."
Give your preschooler small jobs. Research suggests that children who learn responsibility also learn altruism and caring. Preschoolers usually love performing small tasks, and some jobs, such as feeding pets, teach empathy especially well, particularly when you pile on the praise for a job well done. "Look how Rover's wagging his tail! You're being so nice to him. He's really happy you're giving him his dinner."
Set an example. Acts of kindness and charity are an excellent way to teach your child empathy. Bring him along when you're taking a meal to a sick neighbor or a friend with a new baby. Let him help you pack the bag of clothes to take to the local charity. You can explain very simply that sometimes people are sick and can't do things for themselves, and sometimes they just need extra help.
Expect the same behavior from boys and girls. Our society commonly considers men to be less empathetic than women. So sometimes, even without realizing it, we demand and praise empathetic behavior less often in boys than in girls. As Wyckoff says, "We set up this 'boy code' that goes on and on throughout their lives – 'I gotta be tough.' But if we're careful to teach them, boys can learn empathy just like girls."