Next Time, The Kid Eats Soap. Just Sayin'.

Three kids in, I know a few things about how their little brains develop and one of those things I can track like clockwork is the leap into empathy. I've watched each one of my children go from one day, not being able to think past their noses to the very next day, taking on the weight of the world. All children do this. I didn't realize when my first kid was one year old that he was incapable of feeling sorry or understanding what share meant or realizing that pulling momma's hair hurt her, because and I hate to go all Freud on your buttocks but I'm going all Freud on your buttocks, he was still stuck in his Id.* By kid three, I had that one all figured out, and good GOD did my parenting life get easier. Banging your head against year old bricks walls hurts after a while.

Somewhere in-between the Ego* and the Superego*, in my opinion, is where the capacity for empathy lies. It's the instinctual part of the Superego, the ingrained tendency that makes a person able to accept moral guidance and incorporate it into themselves. If I'm correct, and I'm probably not, I think it was Freud who thought that the only real instinct we have is sucking; that everything else is taught or developed. I bet I'm wrong, and I should probably just erase that line, but it goes to my point so I'll leave it. I went to public high school; sue me.

I Sure Hope There Aren't Any Psych Majors Reading My Blog, Because I'm About To Talk Out Of My Ass Aside:

*For all you non-geeks who don't study psychology for fun because you have lives or something:

  • Id is the personality that you're born with, the one that functions solely on need. (Or, as Freud would state, pleasure.) It makes sure you get what you need, and it doesn't much see past that.

  • Ego is one step past that. It still wants and pursues getting its needs/desires filled, but can assess situations and comprehend realities. It starts to understand, not just demand.

  • Superego is what happens when you introduce a belief structure and nurture the ego. It's your ability to adopt what you are taught is right or wrong. It's your moral makeup.


I think empathy is instinctual. I think that, unlike walking or talking which also just happen, that empathy is actually a necessary development, like the ability to suckle. You need it to survive. You know how you sometimes notice that your infant or toddler can immediately sniff out the good guys from the bad guys? That's what I'm talking about. Children instinctively can read people; they'll know who is going to love them and feed them and they know who's a risk. Like my neighbor baby, how he doesn't cry when the 11 year old holds him but he does when the 9 year old does. They both love him equally, but the 9 year old just isn't physically big enough to hold him safely. And the baby knows that, instinctively. No one told him that, my boy doesn't hold him any differently than his big brother does, and the kid has never so much as seen a measuring tape..he just knows.  It's survival.

Random excuse to insert british sub-pop aside:

I also believe that you can over-develop a child's empathy-drive once the Superego kicks in and turn them into paranoid introverts who are so afraid of what everyone thinks of them, they are socially crippled. I think you can under-develop it and have children who grow into adults who are pariahs.

Musical interlude:


*ahem* I think that the one, and maybe only, distinct advantage to having multiple children is that they are given more opportunities to develop empathy, and therein humility, than a single child. Take my three; the first two were born right on top of each other and so have always had to take each other's feelings into consideration. My third? She's more or less an only child. She's coming into this stage WAY later than her brothers did, because she's really never had to before.

Until just recently, if she hurt someone or did something naughty, she'd instantly burst into tears because she knew that tears were called for, she just didn't know why. She felt what the proper feeling was, she just couldn't categorize it because that empathic sense hadn't kicked in yet, so what she'd do it start rattling off everything she could think of that might quantify the bad feelings floating in the air.

"3of3, you may NOT grab the gerbil by its tail and wing it around. That HURTS Niblow." This makes no sense to her, because she isn't in pain, so the gerbil couldn't be. If it's real, it has to be happening to HER. There's your Id.

"Momma! *tears flow* I tired! I hungry! My self hoits! I meed take a nap! You hoit me!"  Straight to her Id; her base needs. Freud wasn't as insane as everyone thinks he was. Coke whore incestuous pedophile, sure, but a very sane one. He'd totally get the chair today.

She's also not really ever had to fight for anything; attention, toys, food, education...she's had me, more or less undistracted, for her entire life. And the thing with children developing empathy isn't that, like we associate with the word, that they become sensitive, kind, humans...it's that they start not just understanding the feelings of others, but are able to manipulate them. They are able to get into your head and feel from your angle, and use that information.

For the most part, this means that when my daughter's friend hurts his toe, she can realize that he feels pain even though she can't feel it, she can assess that pain and imagine it, and she can then take steps to alter it. She can pull from her surroundings and change his perspective on his pain, with a candy or a toy or a joke.

What this also means, however, is that when her friend makes her angry or accidentally hurts her when he takes one of his toys out of her hand, she can feel that pain, she can take the steps she needs to alter it (telling me) and then she can project it onto him. She can pull from her surroundings and change her friend's perspective, to make him feel her pain, too.

She can understand situations and assess them, and it doesn't always happen in the happy way.

She can walk right out of the front door, right after she's ratted him out and I've consoled her, and march across the street to that boy, her friend, and say, "My momma says you a baaaaad boy", even though her momma said no such thing. She knows that boy will care, because she understands his feelings, and when he asks, "Did she say she didn't like me anymore?" she'll tell him that I did. Just to rub it in. Just to manipulate his feelings and force-feed him her pain. Just to make him cry, too.

What she doesn't get, because she hasn't reached the Superego yet, is that what she's done is called "mean" and "lying" and because she's just done what comes naturally and hasn't yet learned the societal, moral ramifications of reverse-empathy. Or being a shithead. Call it what you will.

She can be a week from four and not know what a lie is because she has no reason to lie in her everyday life. She's never emotionally challenged because she deals with ME all day and almost no one else. Her brother, my middle son, had lying down to an artform by the time he could string a sentence together, because he had an older brother. His older brother had dominating and, well, mind-fucking down by the time his brother had lying down, because he had a little brother. My third has a mom and some playdough. My third is behind the curve.

My third had to learn what lying was today when I ran outside, grabbed her by her little arm, drug her back over to her friend and asked her, in front of him, if she'd said what I heard her say. Luckily, she's not actually consciously "lying" yet, so much as assaulting feelings with skill, so she naturally fessed right up to it. She had no idea that she could lie her way out of that one....yet. And then we talked about hurting people and making up mean stories and all the while, I held her right in front of her friend so the only thing she could see was his sad little sweet face and she GOT it. She said she was sorry. She offered him a hug. She took her little butt in the house all by herself for the few minutes it took her to process the concept that she'd hurt someone, with her mind.

A belief structure was put into place today, and that was that she may not use words to hurt people, especially not made up ones. A bridge between the Ego and the Superego was built. And I realized that if I don't get have another baby or enroll this kid in preschool soon, I'm totally going to have to change her name to Heather. And hide the drain cleaner.