Monday, March 26, 2012

Toddler Empathy

As a counselor, having empathy with your clients is a must. It's one of the reasons I decided to work with children way back in college. I felt I had a great sense of empathy with them and understood how they see things in our world.

But now that I have my own child, I realize I get caught up in her fast paced life and forget to look at the big picture.  Yesterday when we were at a friend's birthday party at her home, my toddler went up to their water dispenser, one of those Ozarka things, and started playing with the cold water spout.  I told her "that is not for playing with" as I was talking to another mom friend.  And then a few minutes later, I turned around and saw that she had touched it again, and spilled water on the floor. I set the limit again and she finally listened to me and she came over to help me clean up the spill.  I redirected her to another toy and the problem was solved.

BUT, on the way home I was thinking about it and it hit me! That was the first time she had ever seen a water dispenser before and was probably just curious to see what the heck this big, tall, water machine was.

And I thought to myself, "gee, I forget that my little child is only 22 months old and is seeing so many things in the world for the first time in her life, and it must be so amazing to her!"  I need to stop and use more empathy with her.  Put myself in her shoes and see what she must be seeing.

My statements should have been more, "Wow, you found a really cool water dispenser!  And you noticed that when you touch the blue tab, water comes out of it!"  She must have been mesmerized by this fascinating new toy she found.  Instead of sharing in her joy and discovery, I quickly just told her, "that's not for playing with," as I was too consumed in another conversation.

I should have continued with her excitement and then stated the limit, "I know how fun it must be to explore it, and you can still look at it, but the blue tab is not for playing with.  It will spill water in the floor if we do." And then showed her how we use cups to catch the water to drink.

It reminds me of a scene I saw the other day at Target where this mom was in the towel aisle with her barely 12 month old looking little girl sitting in the grocery cart.  The child had turned around and grabbed a bundle of washclothes out of the grocery cart to look at and the mom grabbed them out of her hands stating, "those are not yours! Why do you have to be so selfish and think that everything is yours!"  Seriously??  I'm not going to judge, but come on, the child is 12 months old.  This would be a great example of having a little empathy and understanding that hey, this poor little girl is just wanting to explore.

I know we don't always have the time or the energy to be so enthusiastic and empathic about our children when they are not listening to us, or not doing what we say, breaking limits and throwing tantrums.  But I figure if we can manage a few empathic moments here and there, then we are doing a pretty good job!



  1. Thanks for this post! I often have moments like this with my kids. It takes a lot more energy, more thought, and more patience to see the world through their eyes and I try to make an effort to do so. Sometimes life gets in the way and it's hard if I'm in the middle of something, or just feeling tired. Whenever I slip up and get impatient instead of empathizing, I make a point to tell them later that I'm sorry, and that I have my bad moments just like they do, even though I'm a grown-up. They seem happy and reassured, although I've heard other opinions that I'm giving up too much parental control by doing that. Do you agree? I'm really not sure.

  2. [...] It is like feeling what the person feels, not only trying to mend that emotion.  Let us put our shoes in the shoes of our kids and understand a toddler’s empathy given to us by [...]

  3. I think your response is great! I love teaching our kids that we make mistakes sometimes, and that it's normal. Maybe other people think if you do it all day long, it shows that your kids can try to get what they want from you and manipulate you if they think you will give in to something. But showing you are human and sometime we over-react is a good thing. Great communication skills too :) My professors always told me that a good thing about being a parent is that we can get second chances to apologize to our kids :)