What Happens When Your Child Is Too Empathetic?

My son is an incredibly empathetic little man. I quickly learned never to have a bad day around him lest he burst into tears and cling to me for dear life, as if my frustration or exhaustion meant I’d disappear instantly. Now that he’s a two-year-old his empathy has extended beyond the household realm and into everyday life. Recently while playing with the train set at our local bookstore, he noticed a three-year-old boy approach the table with his mother.

“I NEED THAT TRAIN!” the three-year-old whined loudly upon seeing my son play.

“No, you don’t. That boy is taking his turn. You have to wait,” his mother informed him.

Thank God, I thought. A good parent means I don’t have to get involved. My son, however, thought otherwise.

The boy continued to tantrum, screaming that he needed the train in my son’s hand and whining uncontrollably. His mother tried handing him another train. Nope, no good. She was content to let him sit and whine.

My son, however, was not. Staring at the boy, he first hugged the train to his chest in total defense. But, he couldn’t resume playing while this boy was in distress. He walked closer to the boy, who reached out to grab the train from him. My son held the train close and studied the boy. He wanted to understand why the boy was so upset. Knowing he’d have to give up the train to make the boy feel better, he mulled over the hard decision.

“You don’t have to stop playing,” I advised him. “This little boy will wait for you until your turn is over.”

Nope. My son couldn’t play with the whining going on. Making his decision, he walked over to the train table, put the train down and walked away.

The little whiner ran to the train and began playing like any other spoiled child with nary a thank you from his lips. Brat.

There I was, having to explain the downside of empathy to my two-year-old son. Not an easy task given the fact that any media he’s encountered so far has encouraged him to do exactly what he had just done: Put someone else before himself. That was the lesson for the whiner, not for my boy. Why should my empathetic little guy have to pay the price for some other kid’s selfishness?

I’ve always taught him that he does not have to share his toys. In fact, we make it a point not to bring toys to shared play spaces, simply because I’m afraid he’ll be so nice he’ll wind up unwittingly giving them all away. I even rewarded him once for standing up for himself against some train table bullies who tried to rip trains from his little hands. But, I could use a little backup from his favorite imaginary friends, like Daniel Tiger, who repeatedly teach to the average, non-empathetic kid instead of the unique little guys and girls in the room. I want the Daniel Tiger who draws personal boundaries, says “no” when “no” is the right answer and is content to feel bad for someone without giving into their demands.

If we want to teach our children empathy we must also teach them how to be effective empaths. If we don’t, we risk raising a generation of pushovers ripe for the bullies who either don’t understand or don’t care about the importance of caring for others. Trust me, they’re out there. And if their own mothers don’t want to stand up to them, what hope do we have?