Friday RIE in Real Life…Empathy and RIE

You know a website I really love?

It’s called ​A Mighty Girl​, and while it is billed as ‘the world’s largest collection of books, toys and movies for smart, confident, and courageous girls,’ I consider it a highly valuable resource for parents of all children, no matter their sex. It’s the first place I go when I want to find a children’s book on any number of topics…there’s an excellent search feature that lets you sort by not only topic, but also by age, and there are synopses of each book as well as supporting blog posts. And the books are by no means just for children, in fact the most recent AMG recommendation that came my way was a parenting book that really piqued my interest…

Unselfie: Why empathetic kids succeed in our all-about-me world (by Michele Borba, ED. D.) The book seemed to be mostly geared toward parents of school-age and older children (leading with the startling statistic that studies show that teens are 40% less empathetic today than they were 30 years ago*), but I was immediately curious to know if the strategies outlined in the book compared to what RIE (and I!) teach. And that may sound a little funny, considering I work with babies and toddlers and often direct parents to the very tongue-in-cheek, yet very on point, Toddler’s Creed:

If I want it, IT’S MINE! If I give it to you and change my mind later, IT’S MINE! If I can take it away from you, IT’S MINE! If it’s mine it will never belong to anybody else, No matter what. If we are building something together, All the pieces are MINE! If it looks just like mine, IT’S MINE! If I saw it first, IT’S MINE! If you’re playing with something and put it down, it becomes MINE! If it breaks or needs putting away, It’s yours.

Going further, you may be scratching your head because I don’t encourage or force sharing; I serve banana whether or not a child says ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ (as long as they are wearing a bib and sitting down); and I don’t make children say they are sorry. So, what DO I do to encourage empathy? I’m glad you asked!

Let’s start with what empathy is, beyond the simple idea of feeling another’s pain. Borba breaks it down into 3 components:

^ Affective – seeing and feeling what someone else is experiencing ^ Behavioral – when that seeing and feeling drives us to act ^ Cognitive – when we can put ourselves into someone else’s shoes (p.68)

While Cognitive Empathy doesn’t start to develop until the end of the preschool years (brain development!), I absolutely see Affective Empathy in every class I teach…from babies noticing when others cry and get comfort to toddlers carefully noticing the reaction of their peers when they take toys.

Children are hard-wired to notice what is going on with other people: they pay attention. And we take it to the next step by narrating what we see. For example, “Anna is crying because her Mommy went to the bathroom. She’s angry and sad. She looks furious” or “I don’t think Donte was ready to let go of the truck. Look at his face, he’s crying. I think he might be frustrated” or “Oh my goodness, I don’t think Terese was expecting you to jump on her when she lay down on the mat…oh wait, she’s laughing! She likes it!” So, we’re doing exactly what Borba says is the first step toward teaching someone empathy is teaching them to ‘interpret nonverbal cues in facial expressions, gestures, posture, and voice tone” (p. 76).

Borba also suggests labeling your own emotions and feelings (authenticity!) and being curious about children’s feelings…normalizing all emotions. This is why I avoid saying “you’re okay” to a crying child…instead, I try to talk about what their feelings are and provide (and model) empathetic caring.

So, Affective Empathy is a huge part of raising children with RIE…and the thing about Affective Empathy is that it often leads to Behavioral Empathy, and that’s my goal when I don’t force children to share…leaving space for children to really feel what happens with other children when they take toys or don’t want to let go of toys they are holding onto oftentimes will lead them to share on their own…eventually. Remember that you can reliably start to expect sharing and the big 3 (please, thank you, I’m sorry) when children are between 3.5 and 4**. Funnily enough, I have a beautiful example of behavioral empathy amongst 3-year-olds…

An almost 3-year-old was playing so happily with a stuffed kitten…calling it a grasshopper and bouncing it/tossing it everywhere. On one bounce, it landed over the railing of my deck in the yard. I opened the gate and let her go get it. When she came back, I warned her that while I could access the yard if it happened again, if it went to the other side of the deck, I wouldn’t be able to get it. She looked at me, and I’m sure you can guess what happened…she bounced it right onto the other side of the deck. Unfortunately for her, I wasn’t kidding…I really couldn’t get over there. Her face crumpled and she burst into tears…while I comforted her, two of her friends from class dashed into the house and each, independently, found her another kitty to play with…they saw her distress and acted on it!

Affective Empathy leads to Behavioral Empathy.

Trust the process.

With care,


Here’s an Amazon Link to the stuffed kitties I use in class. As a reminder, I’m working toward developing my own Amazon storefront so as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases, like the kitty in this link!

*Actually, that research came out in ​2010​…I’m curious to know what has happened to children’s empathy in the last 13 years!

** ​Zero To Three​: