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The Development of Empathy

By letting children work out most conflicts on their own (while adults provide narration and keep things safe), we show that we trust that children will develop empathy without being “taught.”

In my RIE® Parent Infant Guidance class for toddlers and their parents, there is a child, Shanice, who has always been driven to interact with her peers. She loves giving the other children hugs, taking their clothes on and off, touching their heads and faces, talking to them, and taking toys from them. 

Here are three examples of Shanice interacting with her peers. I wonder if you see the same thing in these play vignettes as I do?


Shanice pulled a toy away from Maria. Maria frowned and picked up another toy. Shanice pulled that toy away too. Maria began to cry, and Shanice grinned widely. Maria went to sit in her mother’s lap.

“Maria sad. Maria crying,” she said to me.

“Yes. Maria is sad. She wants the toy,” I responded.

A few moments later, Maria stopped crying and watched Shanice from the comfort of her mother’s lap with a serious expression on her face.

“Maria sad, Maria crying,” Shanice repeated.

“She stopped crying. Is she sad? I’m not sure.” I moved to get a better look at Maria’s face, and Shanice looked at Maria more closely too.

After a few minutes of further back and forth, Shanice went over to her mother and continued her conversation about whether or not Maria was sad and why.


A little while later, Natsu fell and bumped his head. I was near Shanice at the time, and we had another conversation about emotions.