Empathy: How to Encourage Your Young Child Towards Give and Take

For some kids, sharing comes really naturally, but for others, it’s a learned behavior that takes time and practice.

It can be frustrating for parents to that second group, but rest assured, there are recommendations from experts that will drive these concepts home. Parents, teachers, and psychologists have plenty to share on the building blocks of friendship and manners.

First, let’s take a look at selfishness versus selflessness. All organisms in the living world have basic needs that they must meet and so we can call the instinct for self-preservation a form of selfishness. However, with mammals and what you might call the more complex creatures, we cannot exist in a vacuum; we rely on our herd, or community, to help us meet those needs collectively and symbiotically. So keep in mind if your child is a grabber, a yanker, or a thrower of tantrums, that this is self-preservation in its early and most primitive form.

Another key piece is development because that gives us a good benchmark for when it is actually appropriate for our children to achieve empathy. In order to sense someone else’s needs, we must first identify ourselves as a separate individual whose needs are specific to us. So for example two-year olds might be able to tell that someone else is in pain, but their reactions might be more in line with their own needs.1

Sharing has a few different components that surface at different phases of development.

However, by the time a child reaches the ages between seven and 10, a normal human brain presented with images of suffering will show signs of activity in the same areas that process first-hand pain.2 This process is called “mirroring,” and it applies to other types of learned behaviors like movement. At this stage, children also have the emotional vocabulary to understand other people’s perspectives.2

So keeping these important points in mind, parents and caregivers need to dial back our own expectations about when these social skills can reasonably come into play for our kids. Given this preamble, some suggestions and tricks from the expert can encourage reciprocity in your little one.

  • Age two and parallel play

Toddlers are in a phase of development where they are experiencing the world through a singular lens. They are not yet at a place where they are engaging in ongoing group play, and this is why most preschools start emphasizing group activities at the age of three. That is not to say socialization isn’t extremely important to younger children, but what we will most likely see is “selective” sharing. When you see this happening, don’t miss the opportunity for positive feedback.

  • Encourage sharing, but don’t force it

If we push too hard, we can disempower our toddlers who are just discovering the idea of ownership. If it’s not happening, redirect the action away from the coveted object. We can model generosity for them, but insisting on it can backfire.

  • Stay present

Studies have shown that children who spend more time with their parents in the early stages are more likely to show signs of generosity; in plain terms, their self-worth isn’t so connected to things. This means you have to get down on the floor and play trains, read books, show them new experiences, and give them lots of hugs. Remember that you are their first social guide and if they are watching you text on your phone, that’s a form “parallel play.” Bonding and demonstration are very powerful tools.

  • The two-minute rule

Part of the problem is that taking turns stinks when you are young. Even for some adults, this is a problem. One way to solve competition over an object or activity is to set the timer for two minutes of play. When the timer beeps, it’s time to hand it over. If that child resists, you explain they get the toy back in two minutes and start the time again. The real drive here is not the toy, but the interaction, and often after two or three rounds, both kids will abandon the toy for something else.

  • Prepare your child in advance

If a play date is on the calendar, let your child know how it is going to go. Remind them about guest/host dynamics, “You are the host so your friend gets a turn first” and try to devise activities that foster reciprocity. If they know what is going to happen, it won’t catch them off guard.

If we do this work now, our children will grow into the kind of adults who hold doors for others, offer help to their neighbors, and listen to their own children. We can nurture these qualities early on with the knowledge that their brains and bodies are just now laying the groundwork for compassion. Raising a good person takes time and love.




  1. http://www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=242
  2. http://www.parentingscience.com/empathy-and-the-brain.html



About Susie Almaneih

Susie Almaneih spent several years during her young adulthood teaching children dance at her church group, as well as other cultural-based activities. Susie now spends as much time as she can giving back to the families in her community. Over the years, this love for community has evolved into a deeper love for delivering positive and creative content and awareness to families of all ages.

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