Be kind – but also talk about emotions – to shape a caring toddler

Photo: Sundaram Ramaswamy. Creative Commons.

Very young children are more tuned into others than you may think. Explaining needs and feelings helps them understand emotions and care for others.

Mom is sitting with her 18-month-old son, sharing a wordless storybook. “Look,” she laughs. “The little boy is so happy. He’s licking an ice cream.” Then, as they turn the page together, things go awry. “Oh no!” laments Mom. “He’s fallen over and dropped his ice cream on the ground.” She begins to explore the emotions of the scene: “The poor little boy! Now, he’s so sad and crying. Shall we give him a kiss and make him feel better?” Together, they pick up the book and each place a kiss on the image of the weeping child.

This is an everyday scene that any parent might enact at bedtime—Mom or Dad leads a child through vicarious experiences in a story, giving words to tales of other people, perhaps explaining the characters’ feelings and sharing ways to care. In my research with Emily Newton, we’ve used such storybook exercises to explore whether explaining such emotional landscapes to young children is connected with them acting in helpful, kind and considerate – “prosocial” – ways.

“Talking brings clarity to the child, throwing light on what other people need and why. It puts rich words into their minds at an age when they’re fascinated with the feelings and needs of others but may struggle to understand what’s going on and what to do.”

We’ve found that narrating others’ needs and emotions can help to shape young children’s prosocial skills, building their capacity to appreciate and help others. In everyday life, such narration might be as simple as saying, for example: “Is Daddy trying to find his keys? Shall we help him, so he can go and do the shopping?” Or when a sibling is upset and needs help, a parent might provide words to describe how the sibling is feeling and help the toddler know what he or she can do to make the sibling feel better.

Links between talking and caring

What have we learned? Studies have long shown that sensitive parental care of young children is intrinsically good for them. Our research shows that it’s also good for others. Sensitive parental care makes toddlers themselves more caring – young children are less egocentric than many imagine. Intriguingly, our study has also identified links between parents talking about people’s needs with toddlers and those children being more caring toward others.

Such talking amounts to more than just modeling caring behaviors for children. Talking seems to bring clarity to the child, throwing light on what other people need and why. Language is a powerful way to link goals, feelings and what a young child can do. Talking in these ways puts rich words into children’s minds at an age when they’re fascinated with others’ feelings and needs but may struggle to understand what’s going on and what to do.

emotions and caring
Photo: Jessica Lucia. Creative Commons.

How the study worked

We conducted a series of experiments with 87 US children, age 18 months, to explore links between maternal sensitivity, emotional conversations, and the children’s behaviors. We watched the mothers and children play together to see how sensitive the moms were to their toddlers – did Mom respond quickly and flexibly to the child’s cues and interests? As in my vignette about the child and the ice cream, we also observed the mothers exploring wordless storybooks with their children.

Looking at how the toddlers behaved, we conducted a series of experiments exploring their capacities to help others or share with them. We created situations where a stranger needed help. In one example, the stranger was hanging a poster on wall and dropped the roll of tape. The stranger reached for the tape and the helpful child would pick it up and hand it to the adult. In another test, the stranger/experimenter was placing a blanket into a covered plastic bin, but the bin lid was closed and the experimenter’s hands were full. Would the child open the lid so the stranger could put the blankets in?

In a sharing experiment, someone walked into the room and gave the toddler a small carton containing eight crackers. The stranger/experimenter had a similar container but no crackers. Would the child share some crackers with the stranger?

From these varied experiments which focused on parental sensitivity and language, then on toddler caring and sharing, some clear correlations emerged.

Maternal sensitivity and shared intentionality

First, the children of mothers who played sensitively with their toddlers were more likely to hand the roll of tape to the stranger, to open the bin lid and to share their crackers. We suspect that such maternal sensitivity may have a significance that is particular to the age group we examined. In their second year, children become capable of “shared intentionality” – the notion that they can share goals with another person around a common task. For a baby, a sensitive mother is just a nice place to be. However, in their second year, after they develop shared intentionality, children experience a sensitive mother as someone who contributes to their goals, helping them do what they desire and accomplish their intentions.

“Give them the conceptual help they need to further their understanding of other people and why people act and feel as they do. That knowledge helps young children expand their own emotional and social capacities.”

Imagine a free play situation where a child is interested in a toy. The sensitive mother notices this and stops what she’s doing. She helps the child explore the toy, to play with it and to do what the toddler wants with it. This mother is entering the child’s intentional state. The child is interested; the mother helps. So Mom is enacting shared intentionality with the child. We suspect that, in our experiments, children of these sensitive mothers were replaying their moms’ modeling of shared intentionality when they picked up the rolls of tape and opened up the bin lids to help the strangers to do what they were trying to do.

Our second finding is that children were also more helpful and more likely to share if their mothers were good at talking about feelings and the needs of others during the wordless storybook exercises. So we’ve identified two routes by which mothers can help their young children be more caring – through maternal sensitivity and through talking about feelings and needs. We also found that when maternal sensitivity was lacking, talking about emotions and needs could compensate, apparently boosting children’s caring skills even if they experienced less sensitive parenting.

Advice for parents

Out of this work, I have two pieces of advice for parents and those working with young children. First, I’d encourage parents to model considerate and caring behaviors with young children. But it’s also good to use words to explain how and why adults are being helpful and kind to others – being prosocial. The way we talk to young children seems to alter the way they think about people and the social world. It’s as if putting words to what children are already observing in other people’s feelings and goals—and making those thoughts and feelings into objects of conversation—enhances their importance and the children’s understanding.

Second, I’d encourage parents to assume that young children see more of the emotional and social world than we sometimes imagine. We risk more by underestimation than by overestimation. If we set out with the belief that young children are recognizing more than might seem to be the case, we are likely to give them the conceptual help they require to further their understanding of other people and why people act and feel as they do. That knowledge helps young children expand their own emotional and social capacities.

Policy Implications

Enhanced investments in early development and education programs can help to build on the remarkable achievements that naturally occur in the early years, and can be especially helpful to children in adversity.

Practical Implications

New understanding of young children’s social and emotional awareness offers new ways of communicating with children to enhance their social understanding. We risk more by underestimating what young children know than by overestimating their awareness of others.

Ross A. Thompson

Ross A. Thompson

Distinguished Professor of Psychology, University of California, Davis, USA.

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Original research and references

  1. Newton EK, Thompson RA & Goodman M Individual Differences in Toddlers’ Prosociality: Experiences in Early Relationships Explain Variability in Prosocial Behavior Child Development 87.6, November 2016