I just went through some old hard drives and found some old school stuff. I found a paper I wrote on the development of empathy through childhood for my Child Psychology class years ago. Empathy plays a role in mental well-being and social interaction, so I figured it'd be acceptable to post it here. Hopefully someone finds it interesting. Sorry if it's boring. I wrote it probably 3 years ago.
Development of Empathy and Perspective Taking Through Toddlerhood and Early Childhood.
“Before you judge someone,” the old saying goes, “walk a mile in their shoes”. This is, in a way, a prime example of empathy and the term that is often confused with it – perspective taking. The ability to “walk a mile in [someone else’s] shoes”, per say, is a very crucial part of moral development and plays numerous and important roles in the development of social ties and relationships later in life, as well as relationships with peers in childhood.
But, really, what is empathy? Generally, it is regarded as the ability to feel and understand the emotions of others, however, it goes much deeper than that. Empathy plays a major role in maintaining friendships and relationships because it effects your ability to interact with others. If you can’t really “feel” others emotions – how can you be sensitive to it? If, say, you want something someone else has, and you cannot understand or anticipate that they will be sad, upset, hurt, or angry – what keeps you from taking what you want? This is just one small example, of course, but it demonstrates the mindset of someone who did not, or has not yet, developed empathy.
One related behavior, perspective taking, is often confused with empathy. While empathy is the ability to feel others emotions, perspective taking is the cognitive ability to see something from someone else’s perspective – to look at it from a viewpoint that may differ from your own. This is more complex, as it requires the ability to recognize the differences in your perspective compared to others. Empathy and perspective taking overlap, in a way. Often times, the lack of either empathy or the ability to see from someone else’s perspective produces similar behavior – such as in the previously mentioned example. A young child may think that taking the other person’s belonging would be okay because he or she would be happy, so everyone else must share the same perspective as him. In other words, the child believes that if he is happy, everyone else is also happy.
Many recognized medical and psychological disorders have been noted to cause stunted moral development, especially in regards to empathy and perspective taking. One of the more well-known of these is Autism and disorders in the Autism spectrum, such as Asperger’s Syndrome. While the cause of Autism and related conditions are unknown, there are quite a few theories – some with scientific merit, many without. What we do know, however, is that one of the more obvious symptoms is the lack of empathy and ability to see from the perspective of others. This brings up the nature vs. nurture debate – is empathy more of a learned behavior, or is it based in genetics? The more likely answer is both, though recently there has been mounting evidence that genetics plays a larger role in empathy development that previously believed. Still, there is no definitive answer – and there may never be a resolution to the nature vs. nurture conflict in regards to empathy development.
Martin L. Hoffman, a leading researcher of the development of empathy, broke empathy down into four different “levels”. The first one is Global Empathy and is seen primarily in infants. It is characterized by experiencing the observed emotion or distress of others as if it was yours, such as a baby laughing or crying when others laugh or cry. One cannot be sure, however, if this is actual the feeling of the emotion or distress, or mimicry that possibly contributes to the development of empathy. We know now that humans, especially infants, very much follow the “monkey see, monkey do” mantra and mirror actions of others.
The second level noted by Hoffman is called Egocentric Empathy, which is described as a type of empathy in which you respond to the distress of others as you would if it was your own, such as a child giving another a toy or blanket that makes themselves feel happier when they are sad or upset. The next level is generally what people unanimously recognize as stereotypical empathy – the ability to empathize with other’s emotions or feelings and to anticipate ways to interact with the person and help them “fix” the problem, or suggest ways to do so. The fourth and final level is described as empathy for another’s life conditions. This is where perspective taking also becomes more evident.
In Toddlerhood, the perceived lack of empathy and ability to take perspective into account is often considered “selfishness” or as inconsiderate behavior – this, however, is certainly not the case. A toddler (12 – 36 months of age) is indeed capable of empathy, though it is more rudimentary than that of an older child. Empathy in toddlers is within the “levels” of Global Empathy and Egocentric empathy as described by Hoffman. Global empathy is predominant in very early to middle toddlerhood, but toddlers usually begin to develop Egocentric Empathy not long after entering toddlerhood. V. Quann and C. Wien wrote of their empathy observation of toddlers,
“Many children in this classroom attempt to show care for their upset peers by bringing them ice. Perhaps the children remember that when they were hurt, the teachers brought them ice and then they felt better. Once, a child brought another child ice when he was crying due to morning separation from his parent. The upset child accepted the ice and, very soon after, stopped crying. In this environment, it was as if ice represents a gift of caring, of compassion: to be offered ice is to be healed.”(Quann & Wien, 2006)
This gives a good illustration of early egocentric empathy; one child attempts to comfort another (though not understanding the reason for his anxiety and distress) by giving him ice – which previously provided comfort to other children when they skinned a knee or fell down and were upset.
The second group I plan to discuss is the age group 3 to 5 years. This is when empathy for the feelings of others begins to truly take shape and helps foster better peer relations. Empathy in this age groups was much easier to observe and could be seen in a wide variety of actions by the children. Some were the stereotypical empathy response – for instance, a boy was climbing on something he should not have been and fell. As soon as he burst into tears, all of the children’s heads swiveled to see what was the reason of the loud cry. They did not ask; they knew why he was upset – he fell and it hurt. Some of them, especially the older of the group, worse a frown and a concerned look, stopping immediately whatever they had been doing to rush over to comfort him. Later, as he was sitting with an ice pack, children came and went from where he sat, stopping to say a few comforting words.
At the same time, the lack of developed empathy for the feelings of others in the youngest of the group became glaringly obvious compared to his older peers. He simply took toys he wanted, even if others were playing with them. When he was forced to give the toy(s) back to others, he got angry and began throwing things or destroying other children’s block towers. He could not yet understand that others wanted the toy as much as he did and did not understand how it would make them feel when their toy was taken away.
Perspective taking is not yet evident in full yet, but there was much evidence of understanding the needs and wants of others in the older children. For instance, I witnessed a girl sorting through a stack of puzzles. Another girl came up behind her, waiting to get a puzzle, which the first girl noticed and promptly handed the other girl a puzzle from the stack.
Humans are social creatures – we require interaction with others to develop needed skills, as well as to form attachment to others. Empathy plays a key role in communication and forming strong bonds of love, friendship and attachment throughout life. Who would have ever thought that the acquisition of the (metaphorical) ability to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” would be such a crucial part of childhood development?
Quann & Wien, (2006).The Visible Empathy of. Journal of the National Association for the Education of
Young Children. July 2006.
Newman & Newman, (2006). Development Through Life: A Psychosocial Approach, Ninth Edition.
Belmont, CA: Thomas Higher Education.