How does empathy develop?

Three-year-olds are weird. I can say this because I’ve known quite a few and have one living with me right now. As we were driving to school the other day, my tiny tenant asked if all the other cars were going to his school, too. I explained that the road we were taking brought us to his school, but that it kept going after his school and connected with other roads, going other places.

“Does that make sense?”

“Yes, Mama.”


On the way home, I asked him to guess where all the other cars might be going.

“My house.”

I hoped not. I hadn’t vacuumed.

One of the reasons three-year-olds are weird is that they haven’t developed the ability to understand that other people have experiences that are separate from theirs, with their own thoughts and feelings (and destinations). Research psychologists call this ability Theory of Mind. Here’s a short video narrated by a woman with a lovely accent:

(Baron-Cohen et al., 1985)

What researchers discovered, that children develop this ability between the ages of 3 and 4, means that they cannot be truly empathic until this age, either; toddlers can behave empathically by kissing boo-boos and crying when someone else is crying, but this is reenacting what they’ve seen others do or it’s reflexive – which is why they can just as easily finish kissing a boo-boo and proceed to mow down another toddler with no remorse. This is also why I and others do not advocate for forced apologies, making a child say, “I’m sorry,” before kids have the ability to actually be empathically sorry. The apology is just behavior, and if it doesn’t feel genuine to the offending child, then what’s the point?

What this research* also demonstrated was that Theory of Mind is not explicitly taught. Its development is biologically predetermined. Empathy, however, requires a bit more than thinking like others think. It requires first, understanding and regulation of our own emotions, and then the willingness to see things from others viewpoints and apply our emotional experience to their behavior. The ability to do these more advanced things seems to require experiential learning, modeling, and teaching. Children (and adults) need to experience empathy (caregiver responsiveness, emotional labelling), see empathy modeled (by parents, teachers, other children), and be instructed and guided in practice (“Do you see the frown on Johnny’s face? How is he feeling? Why do you think he feels that way?”).

This is where our teachers come in: Without good modeling and repeated experience, our kids won’t practice empathy.

So, we model empathy by using it with our students: “You are angry. I see you… You don’t want recess to be over… You don’t want to take the test today… You have a lot going on at home…”

We also continue to play guessing games with our weird little three-year-olds: “Where might they be going? What are they thinking about? What are they feeling?”

We do all of this with the hope that one day our students will do the same with their peers, and our kid’s answers will be abstract and draw on experiences related not just to them, but to storybook characters, friends and family, and, yes, even their teachers.

(Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”? Cognition, 21, 37–46.

*I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention here that a key finding of the above study was that most people with autism do not develop Theory of Mind, and can therefore never be truly empathic in the way people with typical cognition are, even though they may also very well learn to behave in an empathic way, just as younger children do.

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