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The Empathetic Toddler

By Amalah

toddler-rules-of-possessionMy daughter is almost three. She just got her cast off from a broken leg (freak sliding accident!). All in all she has been a pretty easy going kiddo. Decent sleeper, schedule keeper, pleasant to be around, funny sense of humor, easy to potty train, etc. However, during the cast period, she starting some SERIOUS fit throwing. I’m talking SCREAMING at the top of her lungs for something that would not have previously set her off that hot and WHINING CONSTANTLY. We gave her a pass, since I know kids can regress behaviorally during a time like this—we still did a couple of time outs and reprimanded her, but no serious punishing.

Guess what? The cast is off and life as we knew it is resuming… but the SCREAMING and the WHINING are apparently here to stay. I’m working on some sticker charts (some success) and doing time outs, taking away toys, etc. but my question is actually a bigger picture one. When can you start teaching your kids about appreciating what they have vs. what other kids don’t have? I think this is what seriously frustrates me the most. My kids are super spoiled with attention, affection AND things (we do discipline and are strict on schedules—don’t worry), but I am ready to start showing her how some other kids have to live.

I have read awesome ideas about having older kids have birthday parties where their friends bring toys to donate and at the holidays cleaning out toy rooms with your kids to donate, but I still feel she is really a little too young to grasp that. How can I start instilling some of these values of appreciation and gratitude at this very young age?


PS Also how many times do you have to tell your parents and in-laws that we DON’T WANT ANY MORE TOYS? Money for their college accounts, please!?!?!? They are still not getting it.

Hmm. Yeah…she’s really on the young side here, in terms of understanding “how other kids live.” Toddlers are, universally speaking, pretty selfish creatures, but mostly because they’re just emotionally immature creatures. (As opposed to being inherently, unrequitedly, permanently selfish creatures.) Obviously, resisting and curbing the spoiling and toys!toys!toys! onslaught are noble and important efforts. Empathy and compassion must be modeled at all times, of course. But expecting a two year old to understand…poverty? To exhibit high-level empathy for the less fortunate? To understand just how “good she has it?” I dunno. The kind of comprehension you’re hoping for is still a few years off — a level of empathy most children aren’t capable of truly feeling until age five or six. (And even then, it’s a struggle.)

There are definitely things you can do with young children to start building a good foundation for awareness of the less fortunate. Encourage her to contribute items to a charitable donation bag. Start by going through your closet and have her put your items in the bag or box. Then baby-step your way into helping her select items from her own closet that she’s outgrown. Don’t zero-to-sixty your way into demanding she give away toys — even baby toys — or make her feel like you’re coming for “her things.” (What toddlers lack in empathy they more than make up with a natural sense of territorial possessiveness.) Have her help you go through your pantry for a food drive, or take her to the toy store to buy something new for a shelter.

But again, don’t expect this stuff to immediately “click” and result in fewer tantrums and less whining. She’ll probably have no real grasp on what you’re doing. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, provided you have realistic, long-term expectations. You’re building a foundation, not shooting a magic bullet at the terrible twos and threes. Your daughter’s behavior sounds…well, pretty typical, for almost-three. As she gets older, you can start talking about wants vs. needs (that’s actually in the kindergarten curriculum around here), or institute a new-toy-in, old-toy-donated policy.

I want to caution you, however, from using the hypothetical “less fortunate” as a kind of…punishment? Or something scary or guilt-inducing for her? Or because you’re angry or frustrated because she’s taking her family’s security for granted?  Right now, focus on her behavior and her growing ability to be aware of/control that behavior. How that behavior ranks in the realm of First World Problems? Not so much. (You also don’t want to prematurely expose her to fact that the world is a terrifying, unkind place, or make her feel like her sense of security is false and can be ripped away at any moment, like so-and-so-down-the-street-who-lost-everything-in-a-fire-that-could-happen-to-you-so-stopwhining. Helloooooo anxiety!)

I mean, how many of us also heard the “there are starving children in Africa!” scold at dinner time growing up, and still…you know, refused to eat dinner or responded with a smart-alecky “I’ll mail them my green beans, then?” And hopefully we all still managed to grow up into decent, socially-conscious adults. Despite driving our parents crazy with our selfish, entitled moments.

I don’t remember how old I was (probably early-to-mid-elementary school age), but I vividly remember getting a comic book at Sunday School that included a panel about…well, a starving child in Africa. Just the night before I’d thrown a protracted fit over my dinner and refused to eat it. I was absolutely WALLOPED with guilt. I came home and cried, unable to shake the image of a starving cartoon. I talked to my parents about it and they suggested that we sponsor a child overseas as a family, via one of those international charities that allows you to pay for a child’s schooling and meals. And we did, for years. We put her picture on the fridge and read her letters and all that. I hope her involvement in the program made a difference for her (at some point in her teen years we were notified that she was no longer participating and our updates sadly stopped), but I know it made a big difference for me. BUT. It made a difference mostly because I was ready, because it wasn’t forced, because my parents modeled empathy and compassion as best they could and then allowed me to have my own lightbulb moment.

Right now, at almost-three, she’s really just learning that other people have feelings too. Next on her emotional maturity agenda is to realize that her behavior and words can impact other people’s feelings. And she’ll naturally test this out, quit a bit, in both positive and negative ways. But there’s a mature and compassionate human being in your future, I promise. Provided that you are a compassionate human being, of course.

Here’s another great article on empathy and compassion in children. The fact that your daughter is “spoiled” with attention will actually be key to her own emotional development:

Dr. Mark A. Barnett, a professor of psychology at Kansas State University in Manhattan, proposes that the route to caring for others begins with a solid sense of self. Just as biologists suspect that only those highly intelligent animals capable of recognizing themselves in a mirror can put themselves empathically in a fellow’s furry shoes, so a child must feel in control of his own identity before attending to the pleas of the larger world.

A child whose own emotional needs are taken care of is more responsive to the emotions of others,” Dr. Barnett said. “A child who is insecure has difficulty vicariously experiencing emotions of someone else.”

And here’s a reminder for all of us that those charitable actions matter, even if our children are still too young to fully “get it:”

Beyond being loved, a child learns empathy by example. Empathetic parents generally rear empathetic children, said Dr. Barnett, particularly when those compassionate gestures extend beyond the members of the immediate family. Children figure out soon enough that parents who care only for their offspring in truth care only for themselves.

(As for the PS. Yeeeeeah, I’ve given up on trying to dictate how other people spend their money, even on my children. Giving money to college funds is never going to win out for a grandparent who wants to see the joy and smiles and squeals of a child ripping open a big ‘ol box of conspicuous consumption. If you want a college fund, skip the holiday shopping and put the money in it yourself. Let the relatives take care of having “stuff” to unwrap. And feel free to collect anything that underwhelmed or was left unopened and return it…or donate it.)

Photo Source: Sippy Cups & Chardonnay

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Jill

    May 2, 2012 at 12:30 pm

    My daughter is also almost three, and their behavior sounds pretty similar. I just had a conversation about building empathy with the members of my local moms group. Most agreed that 3 year olds are too young to grasp this, but the ideas of involving them as you participate are great and will build a foundation for them wanting to be involved too. Have them help you pick out clothes to donate, AND come along with you to a local shelter as you drop them off. Someday they will want to donate their things too. We plan to find a child through World Vision to sponsor who is the same age as our daughter, and have that be our gift for her third birthday. I don’t expect that she will get it now, but she will someday, and in the meantime we’re showing her that global empathy is important to us. And, like you said, she’ll get enough toys from everyone else in her life, she won’t miss another from us!

  • Ally

    May 2, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    I really believe in teaching young kids the importance of giving and compassion. My older two kids are 4.5 and almost 3. We have come up with a lot of ways to teach them about helping others. One Friday a month we volunteer with feeding the homeless in our town. The kids help me make a meal and then they come with me and help me serve food. They usually just say hi to people coming in and help hand out napkins. We also give them an allowance each week. They have three jars, a spending jar, a saving jar, and a giving jar. They love using their giving jar. Sometimes they will buy something for a friend, or we use it to do something nice for someone. 

  • David

    May 2, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    I’m a firm believer that talking to your children is fundamental in their growth as little people and their understanding of those around them. I also believe two year olds will live in their own world and have difficulty understanding (at times) the world doesn’t revolve around them.

    That said. I LOVE Ally’s idea of the three allowance jars. Its an incredible teaching tool that visually allows her kids to comprehend the concepts of Me, Later, and Others. There are so many lessons that can be learned and taught with the simplicity of the three jars. Well done Ally. Great idea!

  • Stefanie

    May 2, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    I love the giving jar too, Ally!  Definitely going to start one for my daughter.

    My daughter’s day care had us all decorate a lunch bag and fill it with a lunch for our child to give to a homeless person around Christmas time.  At first I thought that at 2, she was way too young to understand, so as we packed the lunch I told her that we have lots and lots of food, but some people don’t have any food to eat at all, so we were going to share some of our food.  I used a similar story for some boots we bought for an angel tag gift.  She was surprisingly very into it.  I’m not sure how much she actually understood, but I do think it set the foundation for being generous and empathetic.  As far as making her appreciate what she has?  That’s something that I’ll worry about much later on.

  • Trish

    May 2, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    My sons see each of their grandparents once a week, and I disagree about the toys. We’re not opposed gifts for birthdays and special occasions, but had to put the kibosh on a toy nearly EVERY FREAKING WEEK. We had a serious conversation with the grandparents about whether they really wanted their relationship to be based on material stuff, stressing that we would rather it be based on spending time together. Is a gift nearly every week an expectation they want to set as they move into retirement and fixed incomes? How will they feel if/when tween kid just treats grandma like a wallet? 

    And the stuff. OMG, the stuff. Not all of it is expensive. My MIL has a serious consignment/yard sale problem. But we can’t be the dumping ground for that and we don’t have the time to sort the wheat from the chaffe for her. 

  • Jeannie

    May 2, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    I had two points — one, my formerly easy going toddler turned 3 (well … 3.5 really) and he morphed into this CRAZY child. Well, ok, not entirely. But his “terrible” twos had one very mild tantrum, and the year between 3.5 and 4.5 we had several, way worse. So it’s possible that this is partly a developmental stage.

    Also, on the giving front, for my son’s 5th birthday, we wanted to invite most of his class — due to them being together through a few years and then all leaving for kindergarten etc etc., but we could NOT abide the idea of 18 new gifts on top of the many he’d get from grandparents etc. So we asked everyone to bring two dollars — one for my kid, one for charity, which we chose with my son. He LOVED it, and actually told kids not to bring him presents (and one of them offered my son a light sabre!) so he could give away the money. And the parents liked it too — no guessing over gift buying! No extra errands to run! Just find $2 in your wallet before the party! So that’s something to consider. We DID talk about this extensively with my son before we did it, and talked it up so he was keen and understood there would be no presents etc. But again … between the presents we bought and ones from extended family and close family friends, he was hardly deprived — and we also went to the toy store the next day to spend the money he got from the party. So that’s one way to introduce giving and to at the same time reduce the amount of toys!

    I’ve also had to have the toy discussion with my inlaws. I don’t think they’ve embraced it yet, but we’re trying to find a balance between plethora of gifts and savings accounts for the kids … we shall see. 

  • MissRed

    May 2, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    @Jeannie, that is a GREAT idea! (As long as the kiddo fully understands it, which of course yours did). Good for you for doing that! 🙂

  • Tai

    May 2, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    Can I just chime in here and say a lot of people just like giving presents to little kids? Especially people who don’t have a little kid hanging around all the time? It’s really fun to give them a present and see them light up and squeal, especially when it doesn’t have to be a super expensive present.

    Also honesty moment; I hate when someone asks me for money instead of a material thing. It feels rude and pushy. “My kid doesn’t NEED another toy, but he/she needs money!” It feels like a breech of etiquette. I know most people are like “But it’s the most useful thing!” But it’s kind of rude.

    If you think your kid has too many toys, you can figure out what your kid doesn’t play with anymore and quietly get rid of it. Or don’t buy them things yourself. Or set up a toy box at Grandma’s, or whatever. 

  • Karen

    May 2, 2012 at 10:26 pm

    I have an idea. Lets build a Museum of Kids Who Have Less Than We Do. There can be an exhibit on kids who live in apartments. Or kids who have to share a bedroom so their their grandparent can live with the family. Maybe there can be a playroom where kids can play with second hand toys. And there would be no food court because some families can’t afford overpriced museum food. Everybody would have to share a bathroom like we do at my house. We would go there to teach our kids empathy. And then we would go home, back to our regular lives.

    Ok I’m being overly sarcastic, but my point is that I think it’s condescending to think that just because some families have fewer material goods that perhaps they require empathy. Or that empathy is related to how much you have and omg those poor kids who dont have X.

    Kids will pick up on your example. Do you show them empathy? How about other people? Sales clerks who have had a long day need empathy. Do your kids know that material goods don’t equal happiness? I love the second quote that Amy highlighted.

    Sorry if this is too negative, but something about the letter rubbed me the wrong way. Perhaps I should be more empathetic!!

  • Jen

    May 3, 2012 at 7:45 am

    Very helpful comments on both sides!  Love the three jar idea @Ally… and @Tai you are right–we do appreciate all gifts from people.  I just secretly complain behind their backs 🙂  Not in front of the kids, of course!  But @Trish has a point about the way the kids view the grandparents.  My daughter already always talks about wanting to go to the in-laws house.  When we ask her why, she says, so she can get presents!  YIKES.

  • Corinne

    May 3, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    Just wanted to second Amy on not using the starving children in Africa guilt thing. Because you could end up with a 25 year old who is still pretty much convinced that she is personally responsible for the existence of starving children (and because she was driven to study human rights, can actually explain how her purchases and choices, and very existence, have contributed to the extensive poverty in Africa and Asia). Yes, I am in therapy, why do you ask? But yeah… don’t go overboard on the guilt thing, having an overabundance of empathy isn’t actually very healthy either.

  • Melissa

    May 3, 2012 at 6:19 pm

    @Jeannie, that IS a great idea!