Five Ideas for Exploring Empathy with Toddlers

This blog is the first in a series I’ll be writing, inspired by a conversation I had with my niece yesterday.

Kids have always been a part of my upbringing and daily life. My oldest niece is a month older than my youngest sister, now both 25, creating an environment for intergenerational learning as the context for how I approach learning and teaching. My youngest niece turned two in January, and a series of decisions have allowed us to spend weekly time together since she was born. In the last six months, even more so.

I’m a passionate book purchaser, especially of children’s books. About a third of my library is dedicated to children’s books, and I keep them in eye view of kids so they can select them off the shelves. Recently I purchased a book by Vashti Harrison, Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History. As my niece was over delaying the onset of a nap, she busied herself with moving everything of interest to the floor. Pillows, pieces of games, snacks, dress up items, bubbles, and a few books. We were looking at the illustrations of Black women leaders featured in the new book I mentioned above, and my niece remembered the name Maya Angelou. She has a board book at home about her life and body of work.

Earlier she had found a collection of worry beads on a book shelf, and asked me what they were for. I explained that they are a tool to help you when you feel nervous about something, and that some people use them to send a prayer or comfort themselves by the motion of touching the beads. It resonated with her, and she wrapped a strand of beads around her fingers for the remainder of the day. As we were reading, she remembered from her book at home that Maya, as she referred to her, is hurt as a child. She shares this with me, and as she directs me to keep reading, she moves her hand to the illustrated picture of Maya Angelou as an adult, and she starts to speak with her. “It’s ok Maya, you don’t have to be scared.”

She stays interested in this connection throughout the afternoon and getting ready for bed, continuing to carry the beads and remind me of this story of a child being hurt. That night as she brought me her board book to read, she introduced the two illustrations to each other, the image of adult Maya meeting child Marguerite, and she elaborates for them both on ways to use worry beads. Her approach is respectful, attentive, and focused on how to show care for how someone feels. She asks no questions about the nature of harm done, and she doesn’t stop offering comfort or attention. She shows and describes that she is responding to her knowledge that someone has been hurt and needs to be supported, and she gives support from something that has supported her, making the care personalized.

In reflecting on this interaction I observed, I thought a lot about the vantage point I have as both an educator and a caregiver to frequently witness moments like these, and I thought about ways to support other caregivers in feeling more prepared to relate to young children’s questions and responses to information. I know the practical matters an awful lot to us, and we have to feel like we’re equipped.

In that spirit, I offer five very practical tips, and I commit to writing more blogs in this format around other topics and age groups. These five ideas pertain to building empathy, or the care and valuing of another person’s emotions, and emotions in response to how something has affected them.

1. Follow their interests.

Use the characters, stories, places and themes that are readily capturing their attention. If that’s animals, characters in a story, lyrics in a song, you, a sibling, a neighbor, a place, an event, use that context as your setting for exploration. Note, relational and emotional examples translate well.

2. Don’t engineer moments, enter the one they’re in.

There are a lot of topics we want to bring up with kids, and usually these go differently than we thought they would. A lot of that has to do with timing, relevance and authenticity. If you use all the energy to redirect their attention, there’s not much left for more than that. Creating routines that invite reoccurrence, transferability, choice, and preference will naturally tap into present curiosity. You’ll also build a second skillset in yourself: noticing when teachable moments are present, evident by their observation, engagement and return to a subject even when it’s not brought up/currently happening.

3. Make it tactile.

Play is not scripted for kids, but it does contain props and dialogue. The props connect to the dialogue, containing meaning for the type of interaction and associations. The more we use objects, the more links for kids to remember and associate with.

4. Become a reliable narrator.

In a story, a reliable narrator is one whose perception and translating is considered trustworthy, connected to what is real for more than the narrator, and more than one character. In using this phrase, I challenge us as adults in dialogue with toddlers to be careful how much we add in when we translate. Are you able to ask questions more slowly, more open-endedly, more neutrally? Can you differentiate between when you’re making an observation or sharing from your perspective? Can you describe more than interpret, and allow the toddler time to process without offering your own conclusion? Can you repeat the words that the person or character said exactly? This tip is the primer for critical thinking, but also for tracking more details in a situation, and in someone’s response. It highlights when something is ambiguous or unknown, as well as when there’s more than one perspective. This is a building block for listening for different people’s boundaries.

5. Acknowledge their memory when they bring up something.

Toddlers repeat themselves a lot. They repeat words until you say the one they meant back to them, helping them ensure that they were understood. When something is repeated, it is usually because it left a strong impression, or because something is unresolved. This could be literal — you can’t understand a word I said and I don’t know what to do now, or something happened that confused me, or brought up questions or emotions that I haven’t sifted through. They also repeat things because they really like them. Think the movie they watch everyday for a year and a half. Simply by affirming that you remember what they’re talking about, you strengthen their trust in their own perception, and their confidence bringing up a situation or moment that feels relevant to them.

So much of empathy requires us to separate our needs from someone else’s without invalidating either person’s needs. Requires us to humanize a wide range of emotions and experiences, and relate to them, but still allow another person time and space to react on their own terms.

It’s one area of our lives where the golden rule fails us, because we can’t use ourselves as the basis of knowing how to be supportive. Instead, we have to learn to listen based on what is shared by that individual, and keep ourselves open for when they choose to share with us. When we become responsive more consistently, we create more chances for toddlers to practice a myriad of skills that will help them do the same in their friendships, and with their bodies. And we will be there to show them that we are practicing those skills too, and we are a resource they can learn with. Whether or not that learning happens consciously or unconsciously is what we get to determine and label, with the humility to know we need our toolkits grown and affirmed continually.

May this be a small addition to a toolkit you are building and using in your relationships.