A Unique Child

Developing Empathy

  • Developing Empathy

Sarah Ockwell-Smith explores the theories behind the development of empathy in young children…

How many parents do you know who have despaired of their child’s inability to share? As a society we are very keen that children should share with others, viewing this as a mark of respect and obedience to social rules. Children who don’t share are often labelled as ‘naughty’ or problematic and can take up quite a lot of staff’s time, especially when it comes to diffusing situations that arise.

There is a general fear that unless we teach our children to share as early as possible they will grow up to be selfish individuals with little regard for others – having what one might describe as a lack of empathy. The ironic thing, however, is that in our quest to raise empathic children we often treat them in a way that is anything but empathic. A little understanding of the development of empathy and what psychologists call ‘Theory of Mind’ is really important for all of those who work with young children and their parents. Early years practitioners can really help parents to understand what is normal and what to expect from their child’s behaviour as well helping to gently steer the child and nurture their emotional development.

Empathy and Theory of Mind

Empathy is simply the ability to recognise and identify with the feelings and emotions that are experienced by another. The easiest way to understand the concept of empathy is through the phrase “put yourself in somebody else’s shoes”. Those who are empathic are more likely to display prosocial, or altruistic, behaviours.

Empathy, however, is not a skill we are born with. It is a skill that develops, through a mix of experience and mostly brain development, in the first four years of life and beyond. It is usually accepted that empathy does not truly begin to emerge until a child is in her third year of life, with maturation to a level comparable to that of an adult not appearing properly until she begins school. From this perspective we can presume that empathy is a very rare skill amongst nursery-aged children. This is not a problem – far from it; it is perfectly normal for children so young.

Psychologically speaking, the development of empathy rests on something known as ‘Theory of Mind’ (ToM for short). The development of ToM is a cognitive one – that is, it’s an ability that is reliant on the child’s brain development and maturation. For children, the development of ToM means that they begin to realise that not everybody thinks and feels the same as them, for instance, they can begin to understand that their actions can make somebody feel sad, even though they feel happy. Until their ToM is sufficiently developed it is impossible for them to understand the consequences of their actions and utterly pointless trying to explain to them that their actions have affected others negatively. In the instance of a child refusing to share a toy, something we may consider ‘naughty’, what is actually at play here is the child’s immature neuropsychology.

A two-year-old who will not share is a normal two-year-old. A non-sharing toddler is not deliberately disobeying her parents or nursery staff, she is simply operating without the same ToM possessed by older children and adults. Even if other children are upset and in tears over her refusal to share, she will be unable to empathise with their feelings, or to understand the consequences of their actions. Because of this, there is no point in reprimanding the child, especially not by using techniques such as time out, naughty steps or calm-down corners. Similarly, giving stickers to toddlers who have shown empathy and ‘shared well’ is also pointless, as they do not have the brain capacity and cognitive abilities necessary to theorise on their actions, hypothesise about future actions or understand how their actions affected others.


Last century the Swiss philosopher Jean Piaget introduced us to the concept of egocentrism. Egocentrism simply explains a child’s inability to understand the thoughts and feelings of other people. It is important here to distinguish this from being egotistical, which is an undesirable adult personality trait, whereas egocentrism is a developmentally normal psychological stage that all children pass through. Piaget believed that all children under the age of seven are severely egocentric, and that it was only between the ages of 7–12 that they began to slowly move away from a position of egocentrism.

In the late 1970s psychologists Premack and Woodruff developed these ideas into the idea of ToM and became infamous for their argument that chimpanzees possess a ToM. Several famous experiments followed this work including the ‘Sally Ann’ test (Baron-Cohen, Frith, Leslie, 1985), which focused on the theory of ‘false belief’ as a way of testing for ToM.

The Sally Ann test involved introducing children to two dolls, Sally and Ann. The children are asked to recall the dolls’ names, and are then shown Sally ‘leaving’ the room. While she is away, Ann removes a marble from Sally’s bag and hides it in her own box. Sally then returns and the children are asked, “Sally wants her marble, where will she look for it?”

The correct answer, in that it’s the one that shows an understanding of Sally’s beliefs, is obviously ‘in her bag’, as Sally doesn’t know that Ann has moved the marble. Indeed, this is the answer that adults would give. Eighty-five per cent of children under four, however, will answer this question incorrectly, what the researchers term as ‘false belief’, by saying Sally will look for the marble in Ann’s box. This simple experiment shows clearly that young children cannot think in another person’s shoes, due to their undeveloped ToM, or empathy.

Crucial changes in ToM happen at around four years of age, when children begin to be able to accurately interpret the contents of other minds, especially their belief states. It is at this stage that we can expect their behaviour to be more empathic and pro-social. Or in layman’s terms, we shouldn’t expect a child to share until they have reached school age. Readjusting our expectations of children under the age of four is incredibly important. Expecting a child at nursery to share is as developmentally ludicrous as expecting them to recite their eight times tables or read fluently. Strangely, though, this knowledge is not something that is widely known.


Ensuring a child grows up to have a well-developed ToM and a good sense of empathy is not rocket science; the more empathic and respectful we are towards them, the more they will grow to be that way with others.

The concept of mind-mindedness illustrates this idea well. Mind-mindedness is simply a parent or carer’s ability to be empathic towards a child and to understand that she has important feelings of her own. Research has shown that mothers who are more mind-minded raise children with a better established ToM and greater level of empathy. This is where it is important to revisit the idea of punishing a child for not sharing. Any punishment of a child displays a lack of empathy from the adult’s perspective and often a lack of understanding of normal child development. When we consider that unempathic behaviour is likely to foster the same in a child, we realise we need to find other ways of managing issues surrounding children sharing in particular.

Practical steps

Three ways to cope with sharing issues at nursery…

1. Make sure you empathise with non-sharers as well as other children. How can you help them to cope with their strong and uncomfortable emotions? Remember, they are not being naughty, they are just being children without a ToM.

2. Consider setting up a timer scheme with a large egg timer to give the children a visual cue for how long they have to play with a toy before passing it on to another.

3. Consider alternatives that can be used to divert attentions, both non-sharers’ and the other children’s

Sarah Ockwell-Smith is a parenting expert and author, and the founder of Gentle Parenting.