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Nurturing Empathy

On mellow summer evenings, my neighbor Holly Lance and I used to get our 2-year-old sons together outside for "run them bone tired" playdates. One evening, as they were sprinting and cavorting with typical pinball momentum, Holly's son, Stefan, burst into tears. Holding his elbow in obvious pain, he collapsed in his mother's arms. My son approached his inconsolable playmate with a look of alarm. He watched Stefan cry for a few seconds, then walked to a nearby wall, bumped his head against it, and erupted into sobs to rival Stefan's.

I had never seen Alec do anything so peculiar. Was he trying to upstage his friend? It was Holly who said, "What a sweet thing to do!" And then I saw that Alec had clearly been attempting  -- if somewhat clownishly  -- to comfort someone he loved. I'd long since begun to encourage Alec's verbal, physical, and musical abilities, but what about his emotional abilities? Should I be nurturing this flair for compassion? I wondered.

"At its simplest, empathy means feeling the same thing another person's feeling; at its most sophisticated, it's understanding his entire life situation," says Martin Hoffman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at New York University and author of Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice.

It's empathy that leads us, as adults, not just to help out friends and family but also to stop for a driver stranded by the side of the road, point a bewildered tourist in the right direction, even water a thirsty tree. Without it, our species would probably be extinct, says Hoffman. It is also a key to moral internalization  -- our children's increasing ability, as they grow, to make decisions by themselves that weigh others' needs and desires against their own.

Given the importance of this attribute, here's how to recognize empathy's earliest signs and encourage it to blossom.

Born to Connect
There you are squeezing melons in the produce aisle, your 1-year-old babbling blissfully away, when a baby over in the snack-foods section starts to wail. All too predictably, so does yours. Experts believe that such copycat grief may be an emotional reflex that helps "train" our nature toward a more genuine form of compassion.

"The root of empathy is being able to recognize a link between what it feels like for you to be in a particular emotional state and what that feels like for another person, and it looks as if we're born with a primitive form of that kind of identification," says Alison Gopnik, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of California at Berkeley and coauthor of The Scientist in the Crib. "Even within an hour of birth, babies will try to make the same facial expression they see someone else making." Over the next few months, infants strive to coordinate their gestures and vocalizations as well as their expressions with those of adults around them.

At about 9 months, a baby begins to pay attention to how others feel about things. Confronted with an unfamiliar object  -- a toy robot or pureed squash  -- he'll instantly look at Mom to read her take. If she looks apprehensive, he'll hold back; if she looks pleased, he'll probably dive right in. While this reveals a new depth of perception, it also shows that babies have yet to grasp the most fundamental principle of civilized society: Each of us is a separate being with individual proclivities and feelings. You can't comprehend the feelings of another person until you grasp the concept that there is such a thing as another person.

You Are You, I Am I: Discovering Others
"For most of the first year, babies are pretty confused about what's going on around them," says Hoffman. "If they see another baby fall down and need comfort from his mother, they'll cry and need comfort too."

About midway through the second year, most toddlers begin to recognize themselves in a mirror  -- seeing themselves as unique, distinct objects. They now see other people as separate  -- but only physically. They have yet to learn that different people have different inner states as well. So when one toddler sees another in distress, her instinct is to fetch her own mother rather than her playmate's, to placate the child with her own favorite toy. She'll recognize the suffering as belonging to someone else but can't imagine any appropriate remedy other than the one that would suit her. This impulse is one of the most common early signs of what we recognize as genuine empathy, and it may continue even after kids gain a greater sense of what makes other people tick.

When 4-year-old Shai Karp's mother was rushed to the hospital for an appendectomy, he went along and sat with her as she was being checked in for surgery. "He'd brought his favorite stuffed animal, Tumby  -- short for the 'tumble dry low' on its label," says his mother, Judy Wilner. "As I sat there, feeling miserable, Shai insisted I keep Tumby with me that night."

Somewhat ironically, the age at which this type of generosity arises is exactly when, behaviorally speaking, the Tubby custard hits the fan. Because just as toddlers are trying to learn how to make other people feel better, they're also learning how to make other people  -- most notably, their parents  -- feel decidedly worse. And it's not just, as I used to think, that Mother Nature throws in these random adorable moments to pacify our rage; the two tendencies are closely intertwined.

The Altruistic Twos?
Toward the end of the second year, children begin to understand that other people have thoughts, feelings, and wants different from their own  -- often through a process of trial and error. When a toddler trying to comfort his friend sees that his own favorite toy doesn't do the trick, he'll try the friend's favorite toy instead or he'll fetch the friend's mom.

This stage marks a primitive but true form of empathy, says Hoffman, one when children not only start to recognize the different experiences of other people but also, when necessary, reach out to them. "Empathy isn't just a feeling; it's a motive," he stresses. Whether we're throwing a bridal shower or helping a friend cope with a death in the family, empathy spurs us to partake in someone else's experience. We don't always act on the urge, but when we do, it often makes us feel good.

This eventful early age is also a period of intensive experimenting to find out what makes people different from one another. "It's around age two that we begin to see children perform these lovely altruistic acts  -- and do things precisely because we don't want them to," says Gopnik. "The same impulse that leads a child to think, 'Mom's crying, I'm not; I can comfort her,' also leads to 'Mom doesn't want me to touch that lamp; I can touch that lamp, I'm going to touch it.' If you think about what we want to encourage  -- understanding how other people feel  -- the 'terrible twos' is a part of that."

Toward a More Mature Compassion
From this point on, children refine and enlarge their perspective on other people's inner lives. In the preschool years, says Hoffman, they begin to perceive more subtle, removed feelings  -- such as that a classmate may be sad because he misses his parents. They also learn that a single event can lead to different reactions from different people. Sometime between ages 5 and 8  -- having grasped their own gender and ethnic identity  -- they begin to look at each person around them as having a distinct personal history and to consider its influences on that person's experiences and feelings. "They also start to see how having different personalities makes people react differently, and they begin to take that into account when dealing with people," adds Gopnik.

Children are now on the threshold of what Hoffman says is a highly sophisticated form of empathy  -- empathy for another's experience beyond the immediate situation, a skill that we work on for the rest of our lives. They can see that some people have generally happy or sad lives, and they can begin to empathize with entire groups of people (the homeless, earthquake victims, firefighters battling an inferno).

Last Thanksgiving a friend's 4-year-old daughter had a poignant moment. "AnnaBess walked into the kitchen when her father was dressing the turkey," recalls her mother, Wendy Greenspun. "She started crying and said, 'Daddy, that turkey doesn't want to be dead! He wants to be alive! He wants to be with his friends.' She was extremely upset for almost an hour." Whether or not AnnaBess was expressing an unusually precocious empathy, this much is clear: She was saddened by another creature's hardship, and her outrage occurred spontaneously  -- without prompting by anyone else.

For when it comes to raising empathic children, says Hoffman, parents need not fret about following some rule book or missing a narrow window of opportunity. "The beauty of empathy," he says, "is that it comes naturally. It doesn't have to be forced. You need only nourish it."

Julia Glass recently won her third Nelson Algren Fiction Award and a fellowship in writing from the New York Foundation for the Arts.