The first day I hobbled around on crutches, Sophie brought me home a card “for my foot.”
On the second day, she stepped on it.
Sophie’s sense of empathy is ephemeral. One minute she’s gently patting my orthopedic boot, cooing “awwww,” (a sound she reserves for picture of kittens and babies). The next minute she’s demanding that I get her some dried apricots “right now!” She can’t seem to hold it in her consciousness that I’m hurt. At this point, I am so used to her general obliviousness to my emotional state, it’s the kindness that surprises me.
So, as she’s looking up at me and saying, “Oh, Mommy,” in the affectionate tone that I use with her when she’s ailing, I smile and my eyes well. It doesn’t take much.
“Mommy,” Sophie observes, “you are crying, but you’re smiling. Are you touched?” Kevin and I have educated her in the physical markers of this complex feeling—another concept she is on the cusp of grasping. One day, after throwing a fit, she declared, “I need calm down time,” and ran to her room where she sobbed into her snake. Minutes later she returned, truly calmer. Through her tears, her face broke into a smile. “Look, mommy, my eyes are wet, but I’m in a good mood. I’m touched!” (Nice try.)
But in this instance, she has hit the mark. “Yes,” I tell her, “I am. You are being very sweet and kind to me, and I really appreciate it.” Sophie smiles to, and I am encouraged to see that she feels proud of her ability to touch me. Perhaps she will not grow up to be a serial killer.
There was a time when it was believed that parental warmth was a critical factor in the development of empathy, the ability to both understand and enter into another’s feelings. But studies conducted over the last several decades have determined that warmth alone is not enough. In fact, parents who are warm but shy away from setting limits may actually foster self-centeredness. Turns out, it’s all about love and boundaries. To be able to focus on and empathize with another, children need to understand that it’s not all about them.
Certainly, modeling empathy, encouraging children to recognize and acknowledge the emotions of others, and pointing out when they have had an impact on others, good or bad, helps the process along through “external” means.
Internally, children must develop a “theory of mind,” the cognitive component of empathy. Theory of mind is the ability to take the perspective of another—to understand that other people have thoughts different from one’s own. Though some children will attempt to comfort others as early as 18 months, theory of mind typically doesn’t emerge until about four years of age. So I guess I can forgive Sophia for stepping on my foot. For now.
Next year, I expect an apology.