Can a three year old empathise?

I’m definitely guilty of thinking Girlbug is more mature than her three years and almost seven months. So while I’ve heard that children don’t really understand sharing or empathy until four, I was pretty sure Girlbug had these concepts down. She’s great at sharing, and is often kind and caring. She gets upset if she accidentally hurts someone, and asks if I’m OK. That looks like empathy to me.

But is it?

The false belief test

Someone pointed me in the direction of the false belief test. The theory goes that the  reason small children struggle to share, and are willing to push others around to get their own way, is that they literally have no empathy. 

Their immature minds cannot imagine life in sometime else’s shoes, they cannot comprehend that others may have a different view, or possess thoughts other than their own. The crux of the experiment is basically: let them in on a secret and they will think everyone knows. At around four, there’s a shift, and suddenly the world makes sense. 

Here’s Girlbug with a demonstration (the advantage of using your own children as subjects is you don’t have to go through ethics approval). 

This blew me away. I was expecting her to get this, but though she’s close, she’s not there yet. Now, the theory isn’t undisputed. Some argue that there are other things required to pass the test, verbal reasoning for example, and therefore some might fail even though they do possess empathy. Likewise, I feel maybe I didn’t explain it well enough – was Girlbug aware that I meant someone who hadn’t seen inside the box? Did she fully understand the game? I didn’t produce a real character, which may have hindered her “perspective tracking”, something that young children struggle with. And I asked a lot of questions, whereas three year olds do seem to be able to pass some non-verbal versions of the game.

Sharing and caring: is it real?

Girlbug does share and does care, so what does this mean? Well it makes me question her motivation. If the theory is correct, then when she’s sharing she’s not doing it because she knows the other child will be sad. She may know to say that, but her motivating has to be selfish. If she is happy everyone is happy. Now she just needs to decide which will make her happier, the toy she’s squabbling over, or praise from whoever is watching. Girlbug is going through a real “crowd pleaser”  phase at the moment, and also rarely gets particularly attached to toys – so she often chooses to share.

When she comforts someone she is mirroring others’ behaviour. When she’s upset she’s hurt someone she is worrying about implications. Everything comes back to Girlbug. Maybe this also explains why she’s so rubbish at keeping secrets!

The effect

I’m still undecided, but I’m going to give Girlbug the benefit of the doubt and assume she isn’t yet able to empathise. Even if the theory doesn’t hold true, I suspect her reasoning, perspective tracking etc makes it hard to put any empathy into practice in high stress situations. So what will I do when Girlbug comes flying past, knocking Boybug over, in a whirlwind world of her own? I will comfort Boybug, obviously. But then I will pause. I will caution Girlbug about her speed, tell her that Boybug is hurt and sad just in case she understands. But I’ll try not to expect her to understanding his pain, or fully process why running at that speed inside is not sensible (she didn’t get hurt!) I will expect to tell her again and again and again. I will remember the limitations of a three year old…or try to anyway.

And sharing? Sharing is an accepted social norm, and a pillar of many a play date. While Girlbug doesn’t have to give away prized possesions immediately, she does need to allow others to play with her toys. I’ll support her coming up with a strategy for that – turn taking in her own time and a bit of distraction being my preferred option. If not, bring out the biscuits!! What’s lacking in empathy we can compensate for in sugar!

Public participation

Go on! Find a willing two to four year old and give the breakfast false belief challenge a go. I’d love to hear of your super-empathetic 2 year olds, clueless for year old and everything in between!! What do you think? Do they understand how others are feeling? 


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