3 Ways to Raise a Caring Toddler

3 Ways to Raise a Caring Toddler

What should I say?

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When things get emotional, even the chattiest toddlers might be at a loss for words. That’s one reason Grace Resurreccion, a mom in Anaheim, California, would talk about feelings in conversations with her 2-year-old. When his baby brother was crying, she would ask Victor why. “Victor might say, ‘ouch’ or ‘fall’ and then he’d go pat his brother on the back,” she says. In other situations, she’d offer some advice: “Do you think your brother is sad because you took his toy?” What this does is reinforce the growing awareness of others’ feelings while teaching the vocabulary to talk about them. And since toddlers adore the spotlight,making your child the center of his own lesson is easy. When you’re child gets really good at that, show the child some photos of himself/herself looking thrilled, calm, or cranky. After labeling the feeling, discuss what caused it. For really advanced toddlers, try to describe instances in which he/she has been kind or helpful. “Toddlers love to look back at little things they’ve said or done,” Dr. Wien explains. “Telling these stories is one way parents can make children aware of how their actions affect people.”

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How should I behave?

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Deborah Best, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Wake Forest University, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina says that watching you interact with other people is among the most powerful ways your child develops empathy. Seek out learning opportunities when you can. For example, ask your partner how the day went, hold the door for an old man, or help a child who has fallen on the playground. “When you model empathy, you show your toddler how to do it too,” says Dr. Best. Chances are, your child is already following your example. Have you ever noticed her using a high-pitched, singsong tone—what experts call “motherese”—when attempting to comfort another child? “When your toddler sees you consoling someone, she picks up on your tone of voice and body language,” says Dr. Wien. “The next time that happens, she’ll try to assist in the same way.”

Practice, Practice, Practice

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Being a toddler is most likely the first time when his/her desires and yours do not always align. When she was a baby, you fed her when she wanted to eat. Now if she wants to eat—but only a big bowl of ice cream—you might not let her. “She’s thinking ‘I don’t get this. What’s going on here?’ ” says Alison Gopnik, Ph.D., author of The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children. Expand on her realization that others’ feelings may not be the same as her own by encouraging interaction with many kinds of people. “This will teach her that people think and feel differently, starting with basic things, like, ‘My mom likes broccoli, but my babysitter doesn’t,’” Dr. Gopnik explains. As your toddler gets older, you can introduce her to more hands-on ways of recognizing and meeting others’ needs. Letting her help care for a family pet—by pouring its food into a bowl or brushing its fur—will give him a daily opportunity to think beyond herself. If you notice a child crying at his playgroup, point out that something is wrong and say, “Let’s give her a toy.” Maybe the gesture will soothe the other child; maybe it won’t. Either way, your toddler will have gotten valuable practice at learning to respond to another person’s feelings.

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