How can I promote empathy in my toddler?

Toddlers are developmentally incapable of truly predicting and understanding another person's response to a situation. This means that if a toddler finds something funny, such as dumping a bucket of water on Daddy, he is unable to understand why Daddy does not also find it funny. Children only begin to develop this ability around age 4 and reach what adults might call empathy at around age 8. While we cannot expect true empathy from a toddler, we can teach toddler's to mimic empathetic behaviors. With enough practice, children will eventually develop a real understanding of others' feelings. Begin by modeling empathy and responding to your child's needs. With toddlers, include them in caring actions. For example, say, "I love birthday cards. I bet Grandma would like one, too." Or, "Our neighbor has been feeling sick. She has not had time to shop. Let's bring her some groceries." If your child causes harm, remember that he or she likely does not understand. Help him or her try to make it up to the other person. Later, try to relate the experience to a time when your child felt hurt or sad. Your toddler will not understand but you are planting the seeds for empathy, which will help your child later in life.

Candace Lindemann

Children's Author & Education Consultant

Candace Lindemann is a published children’s writer and educational consultant. She holds a B.A. from Yale University and an M.Ed. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. You can also find Candace blogging at While Candace’s degrees prepared her for a career in education, she’s found that the best preparation for parenting is on-the-job training.