Many of us often think that infants and children are well, just the way they are, incapable of feeling or knowing much about their daily experiences. However, we'll be surprised to find out how empathetic they can be when they're connected to their true inner feelings. Children's empathetic ability grow as they mature.
Based on a pedagogical documentation by Valerie Quann and Carol Anne Wien, they have identified three types of visible empathy of infants and children. The three are Proximal Empathy, Altruistic Empathy, and Self-Corrective Empathy.
One of the three is known as Proximal Empathy. In a distress situation, when a child notices another child nearby who's hurt, will take action by showing kindness both verbally (comforting words) and non-verbally (touch). These responses could factor from several reasons such as their relationship with the upset child or perhaps out of shared knowledge of what it feels like to be upset. For example, an inexperienced child is trying to grab hold of a pair of scissors but accidentally bent her index finger backwards and begins to cry. Another child near her says 'ouch' and touches her hand as a sign of comfort.
For a deeper insight of how empathetic children can be:
This video had actually made me realize how deep children's thoughts can be, even though they're only 10 years old. They are, in fact, capable of understanding what's happening around them mainly because they have experienced it.
The second visible empathy among infants and children is Altruistic Empathy. Children with this type of empathy would interrupt their own activities as they have a desire to alleviate the distress that others are feeling. For example, a child in a nursery has been unhappy for the whole day, refusing to conform with class activities until one of the teacher succesfully guided him to a puzzle. Another child, busy with his own activities notices the happening. To assuage the unhappy child, he picked up a toy as an offering to make her happy and then returns back to his own activity, smiling.
Lastly, the final visible empathy is known as Self-Corrective Empathy. This feeling of empathy usually occurs when an infant or child happen to be the cause of another child's hurt feelings or injury. For example, a boy is painting in class and another child came over and she wants to have a dab at his painting, he shouted at her to go away. When he sees her crying, he feels a small sense of guilt and hence, invites her to paint along with him. This shows that the boy had actually thought of his actions and switched his thought from exclusion to inclusion.
All in all, I think the empathetic ability in us has always been there since we were infants and the ability to empathize increases as we experience many events throughout our lives.
Quann, Valerie (MEd, ECEC) and Wien, Carol Anne (Ph.D in Education). "The Visible Empathy of Infants and Toddlers,". The Journal of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Web. July 2006.
Yang Su Ying