We all want our children to become considerate, caring adults who display unselfish concern for the welfare of others. Given the high premium we place on altruism, a major task of parenthood becomes how to shape an egocentric, demanding young creature into a more humane, charitable and generous person.
The first part of the journey involves the development of a strong sense of self and recognition of oneself as an independent individual - yes, the creation of an egocentric, demanding self! According to child psychologists, it is natural for a young child to be more interested and invested in getting his own needs met rather than meeting the needs of others. Not only is the concern for self a natural concern, it is a prerequisite of concern for others.
Child development research clearly shows that empathy leads to altruistic behavior. Empathy is defined as the capability of putting oneself in someone else's place and imagining how he feels. Although we are all born with the capacity for empathy, it does not develop to the same extent in everyone. Fortunately, its development can be nurtured by the environment - most significantly by a child's parents.
Generally, most children begin to show some preliminary signs of empathy by the time they are 18 months of age. You may notice a child of this age respond to his mother's troubled look with an offer of a loved toy. Children of this age can be taught that their actions can cause feelings, good and bad, in others. For example, if you say the word "ouch" whenever he hurts someone else while pointing to the injured site, he will understand that he has made someone feel just like he feels when he has an "ouch." You encourage empathy in a young child by making him aware of others' feelings and the reasons they feel the way they do.
As your child gets older, simple reminders such as, "Think how that would make you feel," will be sufficient to encourage empathy. Point out examples of people who are empathetic and those who are not. Communicate your admiration for kind, charitable people and actions.
Children do not learn to be considerate of others through talk alone. Children must be able to see situations in which people who are important to them treat others fairly. Set an example for doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. Preaching sermons on fair play cannot compete for your child's attention if he overhears you describe how you "put one over" on your boss. If, however, your son sees you tell the store clerk she gave you too much change, you have given him a model to imitate. It is also important to emphasize the good feelings that come from caring about others.
One strategy you can use to promote empathy with an older child is to role-play different situations. When we understand people's actions, it is difficult not to empathize.
As children become better able intellectually to understand the term "fair," you can begin to incorporate the concept into your discipline repertoire. A child of five, for example, can make this connection: "If you can't treat Susie as you want to be treated, then you can't be with Susie right now." Used as a disciplinary tool, removal from the situation carries with it a promise of return, but also a condition - you must show you know how the other person wants to be treated.
A further step in learning to treat others fairly occurs when a child becomes able to internalize parental standards. This happens when a child learns to say to himself the instructions he has heard from his parents. When he is about to take a toy from a peer, he hears his parent say it is wrong to take another's possessions without permission. When he is about to strike out in anger, he will remind himself (in much the same words his parents use) it is wrong to hit people. This developmental step prepares the child for a final stage of moral development which enables him to form personal standards. At this stage the child goes beyond following moral rules solely to please his parents.
Parents sometimes wonder, "Is it good for a child to feel guilt?" When it comes to moral issues, such as when a child knowingly hurts another, the answer is yes. When we feel empathy for people we have harmed, we feel their pain, and we know we are the cause for that pain. This bad feeling, called guilt, is a powerful and necessary force for keeping destructive impulses in check. However, it is unfair to control a child through guilt that is provoked over non-moral issues such as how neat a child keeps her room or how he styles his hair.