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Empathy is a hard thing for a preschooler to understand.
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Guest Post from Andrea Buchanan

Empathy is a hard thing for a pre-schooler to understand.

“Emi!” I snap as she deliberately shoves her baby brother to the floor while he walks by.

“Nate was in my way!” she wails.

“You need to think before you do something like that, Em,” I tell her. “If he’s in your way, think about what you can do besides push him! And if you can’t think of anything you can say with words to make him move, then ask Mommy for help, okay?”

She is sullen, glaring at me and her 16-month-old brother as though she is 14 instead of four.

“Okay, Emi?” I repeat. “You wouldn’t like it if Nate pushed you down, would you?”

“Yes, I would,” she says in the sing-song voice I’ve noticed her peers using at school.

“I doubt it,” I say, returning to whatever it was I had been doing, putting something away or cleaning something up, some domestic chore I’d already done a thousand times in the nearly five years it’s been since I became a mother.

I turn around to check on the kids just in time to see Emi push Nate to the floor again.

Over his indignant sobs, she makes an angry face at me and says, “Mommy, I THINKED about it first!”

It’s a hard concept, the notion that other people feel things. For the first few years of life, maybe more if you’ve got parents who don’t mind you living at home while you drop out of college to pursue “acting,” it’s all about you. You are hungry and food appears. You are thirsty, and there is drink. You are wet, and someone dries you. Up until a certain point, the idea that other people actually exist outside of their capacity to serve you is purely theoretical.

That is all as it should be: it is, in fact, the point of being an infant and a toddler. But somewhere along the way the brutal truth is revealed, sometimes due to the introduction of a younger sibling, sometimes just because it’s what life is all about. However it happens, it dawns on you: you are not the center of the universe.

Emi’s been grudgingly aware of that concept for a while now, but it’s still hard for her to grapple with the fact that her words and actions affect other people.

It’s the age, I know: I see the other parents at preschool pick-up time strategizing with their own kids over how to use “friendly voices” and discussing whether or not “nyah-nyah-ne-nyah-nyah” is a nice way to talk to someone.

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“I’m having a play-date and yoo-ou’re no-ot,” sing-songs one girl while another girl cries.

“That’s not a very friendly way to say that,” I remark to Emi, who promptly butts in to add, “I’m having a play-date too, and mine is happening FIRST!”

We parents sigh and roll our eyes, make apologetic grins at one another, and then we schlep the kids home, reminding them that whatever they’re sing-songing about is not a competition and that words can hurt people’s feelings.

Despite the fact that this kind of narcissism and competition is developmentally appropriate, it’s still worrisome in a way only other parents can understand. I have these fearful visions of Emi as an adult shoving people just because they happen to be in her way, of phone calls from tearful parents begging me to stop my daughter’s reign of terror as the class bully. It’s hard to not project her completely acceptable four-year-old behavior onto some future Emi who hasn’t learned whatever lessons are in store for her in the coming years.

Watching her be a self-centered four-year-old makes me intensely self- centered as a parent. What might I be doing wrong? Is she picking up on tension at home, could she be acting out because I’ve been paying too much attention to the baby?

I do know that empathy, like teasing or “nyah-nyah”s, is something that is learned, something that takes practice and reinforcement. And I see, too, that her striking out — her pushing down her baby brother, or her joining in with the “I have a play-date” competition — is a way for her to control things, to strike back at a world that doesn’t seem to empathize with her (for surely if it did there would be no little brother to steal
Mommy’s attention, no friend who decides to play at someone else’s house today instead of hers). And yet I worry. Even as I try to help ease my daughter into embracing the notion that it’s not all about her, I am secretly wondering if it’s not, in fact, all about me.

Though I know it’s a big concept to grasp, I try to remind Emi in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that we — the other people who live in her world— have feelings, too. Sometimes I can believe the books I read that tell me she is on target for her age; other times I’m convinced I must be doing something wrong as a parent to have an imperious dictator for a pre- schooler.

And still other times, I am humbled by the thought that her evolution from bossy to compassionate might be something she is accomplishing naturally as she grows, no need for any worrying, doubt, or concern from me.

The other night, Nate had a hard time falling asleep. When I put him, still awake, in his crib, he cried his tired cry and I knew if I just gave it a few minutes, he’d drift off. So I sent Emi to pick out books we could read together later, and I stayed with Nate in the dark there, soothing him and patting him on his tummy. It brought back vivid memories of me standing over Emi in that same crib, soothing her and patting her on her tummy in the dark.

In the midst of me getting him to settle, Emi called for me, and I went to her. It only took a few seconds before Nate realized I wasn’t there any- more and started to cry.

“Oh, Natey’s crying!” Emi said. “Why is he crying?”

I said, “Sometimes babies get so tired they forget how to fall asleep, and crying can be a way for them to settle down. Did you ever feel so tired you just wanted to cry?”

“Yes,” she said.

“That’s probably how Nate feels, so tired he just has to cry,” I told her. “But I don’t want Nate to have to cry. I’m going to go back in there and tell him that everything’s okay. It just breaks my heart to hear him cry.”

Immediately a look of concern came over her face. “Me, too, Mommy,” she said. “It breaks my heart when Natey cries.” Then the kid who had just that morning hit her brother on the head with a Barbie and claimed that he’d done it himself looked at me and said, “Sometimes when Natey cries, it feels like I have two hearts inside my body.”

I can’t think of a better definition of empathy than that.


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