Infants Show Empathy as Early as 6 Months Old

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As parents, teaching our children to be kind, compassionate human beings is one of our most important jobs. We remind them over and over again that hitting is wrong and scold them when they name-call. We show them what empathy is by setting an example ourselves, kissing booboos and holding them close when they are upset or scared.

Though previous theories postulated that babies could start showing empathy at one year old, a new study indicates that it can happen as early as six months.

The study worked with babies ages five to nine months old. The babies were shown two videos where a square figure walks up a hill. In one video, the square joins a circle figure and both walk down the hill happily. In the second video, the circle hits and pushes the square until it runs back down the hill and starts crying.

The researchers presented the babies with the square and circle figures on a tray and allowed them to pick one. Greater than 80% of the babies selected the figure that had been crying. When shown the same square figure crying for no reason, with no bullying scenario, the infants didn’t show a preference.

This has interesting implications for parents. If such young babies were able to sense the distress of the victim in the scenario with the shape characters, imagine what else they learn by observing us. We are able to start shaping what kind of person they become early on.


Teaching my children to be empathetic is something that is really important to me. I can’t stand the idea of them being bullies some day.

My son is at an age where I feel like I really have to buckle down in working with him on this. He’s totally a typical self-absorbed, rowdy, limit-testing toddler. Sometimes he does something mean out of anger/frustration, and other times he just doesn’t think his actions through.

But he is definitely old enough to know better a lot of the time, so I am reminding him that he is not allowed to be mean several times a day. Hopefully, his baby sister is learning too, as this study suggests she is!

How about you? How are you teaching your children empathy? Do you think it is something we are born with, or do you think babies learn it from observation? Tell me in the comments!


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