Children gradually develop their ability to show empathy, compassion, and social awareness. The most powerful way to encourage socially responsible children is to first ensure that our children are nurtured and well cared for themselves. The second most powerful thing you can do as a parent is to model socially aware behaviors for your child to see.
The very beginnings of empathy and emotional and moral intelligence originate in the give and take of the first months and years of life. Infants, for example, often respond to the cries of other infants by crying themselves. Infants may also change their expressions based on the happy or sad expressions of their caregivers.
As the toddler's world expands, children begin to learn the difference between what's "yours" and "mine" and start practicing the challenging concept of sharing. Toddlers can display empathetic responses to another's situation by exhibiting what they would like to have happen if they were in a similar situation. For example, a toddler who sees a friend fall may take his own mother over to the hurt child, even though the hurt child's mother is also present. Noticing a world beyond themselves, toddlers learn about giving from adults who model sharing, caring, generosity, and helpfulness.
Preschoolers are progressively able to recognize and name emotions in themselves and in others - happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, and fear. They often look for cues in adult facial expressions and voice tone to determine what action to take, particularly in new situations. Learning from behavior they've seen modeled by caring adults, they are able to respond to the feelings of others, like comforting a friend in distress. Role-playing is an effective way to help preschoolers navigate future emotional scenarios: "Your baby doll is crying. Maybe if you gently rock her and hold her close, she will feel better."
For most pre-kindergarten children, the world is black and white with no grey areas. As such, pre-kindergarteners tend to believe in absolutes - right or wrong, good or bad, with nothing in between. While they are still primarily egocentric in their world view - meaning they believe that others see things the same way they do - they are beginning to appreciate the perspective of others. This makes the developmental concept of sharing easier for most pre-kindergarten children.
Kindergarteners become more focused on reciprocal relationships with their peers. Their capacity for empathy grows as they develop the ability to see things from another's perspective. Their emotional sensitivity towards others deepens as they recognize that others may feel differently from their own feelings. This increasingly sophisticated understanding makes kindergarteners begin to be able to consider more complex concepts like poverty and other social challenges.
School-agers are becoming increasingly interested and concerned about abstract topics - such as justice. They now take into consideration extenuating circumstances, motivations, and intentions of other people. It is often at this age that children can most fully appreciate the difficulties faced by those who suffer from hunger, homelessness, and oppression.