Three-year-old children aren’t exactly known for being the most empathic of creatures. As anyone who has had a three-year-old in their lives could tell you; most of them simply care about their needs, and can be rather selfish. However, this does not mean that they are incapable of learning the much-needed skill of empathy, and I for one was willing to take that challenge. It was a daunting task, but through some careful observation, I was able to develop a plan that involved playing with a plush toy cat in order to teach Leonardo empathy.
First of all I need to specify that Leonardo has had pets around the house for most of his life. He was accustomed to animals and we have always encouraged him to be nice towards them. This included explaining to him that animals can be hurt easily, and as such we must be gentle when we play with them. My wife and I would demonstrate the ways you could touch them, and how to avoid being scratched by cats via respecting the boundaries that they set (such as not rubbing their bellies because they don’t like that, similarly to how he doesn’t enjoy boo-boos). Empathy wasn’t the emphasis at this point since he was probably too young to understand, but we had set some firm ground for the future. However, we had to move Japan when Leonardo was two years old (still too young to fully grasp the concept of empathy), and left the pets under the care of our relatives. As such we couldn’t continue teaching Leonardo through this method.
By the time Leonardo turned three I started noticing the normal behaviors that are typically displayed by a child his age (especially for an only child) such as, being selfish with his toys, testing his boundaries, back talk, and tantrums. I wasn’t too concerned about this, but I knew that if he learned to be empathic it would curtail some of the more “negative” aspects of this age. I knew he liked cats, but since we promised we would come back for our pets after the contract was fulfilled in Japan it wouldn’t be a good idea to get a new cat. Thus, I got him a plush toy cat from one of the nearby arcades and told him to name it (it was a girl cat and her name was Lizzie apparently). At first, Leonardo did not pay much attention to the Lizzie, but every day I would get home from work and include “Lizzie” in our games and activities. Activities such as going on family walks, stroller rides around town, visits to the playground, and even bedtime were some of the exercises that Leo and Lizzie practiced together. All of these actions created a bond between them, and Leonardo grew very close to his toy. He eventually started to pretend to feed her, covering her with his bedsheets, kissing her boo-boos if she got hurt, and telling us if something was upsetting or making Lizzie happy. He had personalized the toy and was being mindful of her “emotions”.
My wife and I supplemented these “lessons” by also being extremely patient. When Leonardo displayed behaviors that would upset us, instead of becoming angry we would pick him up and hold him while he was in the middle of the tantrum and explain how these behaviors made us sad or angry. We taught him that similar to how Lizzie can become upset, other people can become saddened when such behaviors are exercised. An important concept we also strived to teach him was that it was all right to feel negative emotions (which are a regular part of growing up), but that they can be manifested in less disruptive methods such as by talking with us about his feelings. It took a long time for the values to be instilled, but we can see the progress that he has made in becoming more mindful towards others.
We still have a long way to go in teaching our son empathy; however, we have planted the seeds of love that will one day blossom into (hopefully) a wonderful adult and future father inside Leonardo. Children are sensible creatures and if we teach them with love they are definitely more receptive that they would be with anger. It’s important to remember that we were children once too and that they will become a reflection of who we were while they are growing up. I want Leonardo to know that the greatest gift I gave him was the ability to empathize with his peers and that I will be there to guide him in his journey as much as possible.